Analysis: Partisanship, geographic divide could hinder COVID-19 response

    The kinds of deep partisan divisions on display at this gun rights and gun control demonstration in Virginia could impede our ability to deal with COVID-19. (Photo by Virginia Mercury.)

    America’s editorial writers, centrist pundits and think tank talkers have long decried the loss of civic trust in American institutions like government and the press, as well as the polarization that drives our politics today. 

    Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam wrote an entire book about the decline of civic engagement and took it as a given that civic trust — the fellow feeling among us — is an important facet of a thriving society. 

    Maybe he and his ilk had a point. 

    Containing a pandemic like COVID-19 requires high levels of trust in government, the media and other institutions — and a willingness to work together with your political opponents to find common solutions. 

    The earliest public opinion polling of the coronavirus does not exactly inspire much confidence that Republicans and Democrats will listen to government officials — including the president — or experts being cited in the media who are insisting that everything be shut down. 

    A NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist Poll released March 17 found that in general, voters don’t trust the information they hear about coronavirus from President Donald Trump. Only 37% of voters say that they trust that information either a “great deal” or a “good amount,” while 60% say “not very much” or “not at all.”  These splits are largely along party lines with 8% of Democrats and 74% of Republicans trusting what they hear from the president.

    When it comes to what voters hear from the news media, the numbers flip, with 64% of Democrats and only 36% of Republicans trusting what they hear.

    There is also a significant split along party lines in concern about the virus, with 84% of Democrats and 58% of Republicans indicating that they are either “very concerned” or “concerned” about the spread of COVID-19in their communities.

    Hopefully Trump’s rhetoric this week expressing more urgency about containing the pandemic —  which seems to have gotten through to Fox News — will also get through to Republican voters and keep them at home. 

    There are two potential factors driving the perceptual chasm — the airwaves and geography.

    First, Americans are increasingly getting their news from sources that confirm their worldview and media coverage of the virus corresponds to the outlet of choice for each party. A Pew Research Poll conducted in late 2019 found that 18% of Republicans and 20% of Democrats report that they get political news only from sources with like-minded audiences. Most of those Republicans report that they get their news mainly from Fox News. Overall, more than one-third of all Republicans identify Fox News as their main source for political and election news. Democrats on the other hand in that news bubble get their news from sources such as MSNBC and CNN, as well as NPR and the New York Times (though the latter two especially are not equivalent to Fox.)

    (Of course, there’s an important caveat here: Is the reaction to the coverage of the pandemic caused by the coverage? Or are news agencies tailoring their coverage to fit the perceived worldview of their audience? At the moment, we can’t be sure.) 

    Second, the very Americans who may be taking their cues from more coronavirus-skeptial sources like Fox and talk radio, are also more likely to live in rural areas where people may believe they are at lower risk. 

    Republicans are increasingly dominant in rural communities, while Democrats have become concentrated in urban and suburban communities. 

    Since coronavirus will have the biggest impact on people in urban and suburban regions, it would seem plausible that these populations — who happen to be predominantly Democrats — would see the coronavirus as more of a threat to their day-to-day lives than Americans working and living in a less dense environment. 

    In a SurveyUSA Poll released March 15, respondents were asked if their everyday lives had changed as a result of the coronavirus. The share of respondents saying “been turned upside down” and “changed noticeably” was 24% among Republicans and 37% among Democrats.  More than one-third of urban dwellers had their lives “turned upside down” or “changed noticeably,” while that was true for just one-in-five rural Americans. 

    Asked if they are “extremely” or “somewhat” concerned they will contract the virus, 44% of Republicans said yes, while 63% of Democrats expressed that fear. Nearly 60% of urban dwellers are afraid they’ll catch it, compared with 51% of rural Americans. 

    A Quinnipiac University Poll released March 9th showed similar results. In this poll, 38% of Republicans, 74% of Democrats, 61% of urban and 48% of rural registered voters said that they are at least “somewhat concerned” that the coronavirus will disrupt their daily lives. 

    When asked about confidence in the ability of the health care system to handle the response to the coronavirus, 87% of Republicans, 53% of Democrats, 58% of urban and 73% of rural registered voters say that they have confidence. 

    The entire issue could get a new sorting this week, however, as Trump shifted his rhetoric Monday, saying the virus is not under control anywhere in the world. Just the day before he said that the virus is something we have “tremendous control” over. If Trump continues to trumpet the seriousness of the pandemic — communicated through Fox News — we could see these partisan differences in how the pandemic is perceived begin to recede. 

    Public health officials can only hope so: The virus is not partisan, and measures to contain it require compliance from everyone, not just the MSNBC crowd.