Partisanship and the pandemic

Six people sit socially distanced in folding camping chairs in a public park
A socially distanced get-together during the coronavirus pandemic.

Partisanship, not health concerns, is the main driver of whether Americans are social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new study, and researchers say understanding the influence of partisanship is key to developing successful strategies to get people to change their behavior and help tamp down the virus.

John Lapinski, faculty director of Penn’s Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies (PORES) and director of the elections unit at NBC News, and Marc Trussler, the newly hired director of data science at PORES, collaborated with Josh Clinton of  Vanderbilt University and Jon Cohen of SurveyMonkey on the study, “Partisan Pandemic: How Partisanship and Public Health Concerns Affect Individuals’ Social Distancing During COVID-19.” 

“As political scientists, we were interested in how people react to a pandemic. You wouldn’t necessarily think that partisanship would drive a public health debate or how people would behave in acting to mitigate it,” Lapinski says. “We were really interested in what types of attitudes people had towards COVID because we thought it might be consequential for the election.”

The public tends to see partisanship as a description of someone’s policy positions, Trussler says. But political scientists have come to the consensus that it isn’t so simple.

“We see partisanship as an emotionally laden social identity, something that is much deeper. It talks about the type of person you are, the type of values that you have, the people that you want to spend time with,” says Trussler. “But when it comes to something like this pandemic, something that is potentially threatening to your health and the health of your loved one, that’s really a new territory for partisanship.”

What sets their research apart from other studies looking at partisanship during the pandemic is the scope and type of data they’re using, Lapinski says. As of mid-July, they had polled over 650,000 people since the pandemic’s early days in February, when social distancing wasn’t as partisan. They intend to continue the study through the election, and by the time it concludes, they will have interviewed a few million people, he says.

The ubiquity of SurveyMonkey polls enabled the researchers to reach a high-quality pool of respondents, a group they believe are as representative of the population as the best telephone polls. After taking a SurveyMonkey poll on what they wanted for lunch, for example, a random sample of these respondents would be asked if they’d like to take another poll on COVID-19. The team uses statistical weighting techniques and rigorous social science tools to ensure their respondents are representative of the national population. 

The study also offered a few surprises, including disproving the narrative that young people’s socializing is driving the spread, Lapinski says.

“We’ve all seen those pictures in the national media of people in the Lake of the Ozarks in those pools, and you get this perception that young people are going to COVID parties and driving the spread, but we found that narrative isn’t the right one. It really is people’s partisan identification,” Lapinski says. 

Understanding the influence of partisanship is key to developing successful strategies to get people to change their behavior, says Lapinski, and part of that can come down to messaging from political elites.

“One of the things that we know is that people take cues from elites,” he says. “Recently, we’ve seen different messaging from Republican elites, as the virus spreads in red states. It will be interesting to see how that plays out and how that might change people’s attitudes across time.”

Earlier in the pandemic it was easier for Republicans to think differently about COVID-19 because their states weren’t particularly hard-hit yet, he says. As infections peak now in places like Arizona, Texas, and Oklahoma, Lapinski says people might be seeing things differently.

Even President Trump wore a mask in public for the first time recently during a visit to Walter Reed Medical Center, and some GOP governors are issuing mask orders. Last week, Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson issued a statewide mask order, and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp urged residents to wear masks in public, just days after he banned cities from ordering people to wear them.

“I am hopeful that people will start to realize what they should have all along: that COVID isn’t partisan. It treats everybody equally,” Lapinski says. “As people understand that, I think it will be good for public health.”

John Lapinski is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Professor of Political Science, faculty director of the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program, and the director of the Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania.