Within Parties, Trump's Pandemic Ratings Vary Widely

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Everyone knows that Democrats and Republicans have polarized views about politics and policy; but in a national crisis like coronavirus, you might expect the differences to diminish. Not in this age of polarization. The latest YouGov poll, conducted March 15 -17, showed that 61% of Republicans strongly approved of the President Trump’s handling of the virus, while only 3% of Democrats strongly approved of his performance. 

However, the conventional wisdom about partisan polarization in our nation masks intra-party differences that are potentially important. Adding intra-party ideology to the mix reveals a clearer picture, showing that the degree to which respondents within the political parties are liberal and conservative affects responses to the coronavirus epidemic. The parties are polarized to be sure, but within each party, the ideology of the respondents helps explain their responses to our nation’s crisis. And these ideological differences within the parties might well be predictive of the nation’s response as we move forward. 

Republicans sort themselves into three groups when answering the ideological self-placement question (In general, how would you describe political viewpoint?): 38% identify as very conservative; 37% as conservative; and 22% moderate to liberal. Not surprisingly, in contrast, 25% of the Democrats self-identify as very liberal, 33% as liberal, and 39% as moderate to conservative. Using these categories, intra-party differences are apparent, as Table 1 shows.  (Click to enlarge.)

More than 7 in 10 of very conservative Republicans believe the pandemic has been exaggerated for political reasons, while only half the conservative Republicans and 40% of the liberal to moderate Republicans share that view. The same pattern applies when respondents were asked whether the U.S. handled the crisis better or worse than other countries — 77% of very conservative Republicans felt that our government has handled the crisis better, compared to just 59% of conservatives and 45% of the moderates. 

The very conservative also are less likely to believe that the pandemic will result in a recession (only 33%), while 40% of the conservatives and 52% of the moderates see an impending recession as likely. 

Democrats show corollary intra-party differences by ideology. On the question of pandemic exaggeration due to politics, twice as many moderate Democrats (31%) agree as do their liberal (15%) and very liberal (14%) co-partisans. The same is true concerning the issue of how well the U.S. has done relative to other nations, with almost 20% of moderate to conservative Democrats agreeing that we have done better than most other countries, but less than 10% of the other two ideological categories sharing that opinion. 

Interestingly, when asked whether they agreed that “The U.S. is concealing the true death scale of coronavirus,” only 14% of very conservative and 25% of conservative Republicans thought that was true, while almost half of their more moderate brethren thought it was true. About three-fifths of Democrats agreed that the U.S. was hiding the scale from the American people, with little intra-party ideological difference. This intra-party difference among Republicans was likely the result of conservative Republicans supporting the president by not believing the statement, while Democrats want to believe bad things about the Trump administration. This suspicion is somewhat confirmed by further analysis which showed that only 71% of moderates in the Republican Party supported Trump over Biden in a general election pairing, compared to 91% and 98% for conservative and very conservative Republicans, respectively. 

Turning to questions about citizen behavior during this crisis, we see again that, while members of the two parties are responding differently from each other, differences within parties, explained by ideology, are also apparent (Table 2). In each party the closer one moves to the center of American politics, the more behavior changes. Within the two conservative categories of Republicans, less than 40% report eating and going out less often, while fully 65% of moderates report eating and going out less often. Among Democratic respondents, all report going out less frequently, but more moderates are staying home than those in the other two ideological categories. The same pattern shows for changes in travel plans, with Democrats less likely to travel than Republicans; but within both parties, the more moderate, the greater the change. 

Democrats are also more likely to be working from home than Republicans. Some of these behavioral patterns are difficult to interpret, in part because some of the behavior observed is involuntary. Not everyone has the opportunity to work from home, for example, and some areas of the country closed restaurants before others did. However, analyzing the data by separating states into those with restrictions and those without did not change the patterns reported here.  

None of us is surprised by partisan differences of opinion concerning the government response to and eventual impact of the current pandemic. However, the extent of intra-party difference is a new wrinkle. Donald Trump has nearly universal support from the very conservative elements in his party, but his support and presumably the extent to which he is believed as he explains his response to the crisis decreases among those who characterize their ideology as conservative and even more so among moderate Republicans. Similarly, moderate Democrats, while still critical of the president, are much more likely the agree with him than are those self-identifying as liberal or very liberal. 

Only time will tell if conservative Republicans are willing to change their attitudes and behavior in regard to the coronavirus. Trump has changed his view of the pandemic from something he said was “totally under control” to a “war with an unseen enemy.” Fox News has shifted, too. As recently as March 13, the Rev. Jerry Falwell Jr. told “Fox and Friends” that it was all a plot on the part of the North Koreans. Four days earlier, Fox Business anchorwoman Trish Regan had suggested that the media was using the virus as a pretext to “demonize and destroy the president.” 

The adults eventually took control, with Fox News host Tucker Carlson becoming the network’s dominant voice. “People you trust – people you probably voted for – have spent weeks minimizing what is clearly a very serious problem,” he told his audience. “’It’s just partisan politics,’ they say. ‘Calm down.’ But they’re wrong.” 

“This is a major event,” he added. “It’s definitely not just the flu.” 

Will such warnings change Republicans’ views? The just might. Very conservative Republicans – those most supportive of the president’s actions, least concerned about economic recession, most accepting of the president’s estimates of mortality rates, and least likely to have changed their behavior – these are the Americans who rely most heavily on Fox for their news. 

David Brady is a professor of political science at Stanford University and the Davies Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution.

L. Sandy Maisel is the Goldfarb Family Distinguished Professor of American Government at Colby College.

Brett Parker is a JD/PhD student at Stanford University.

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