Democrats, Republicans divided over coronavirus threat

Partisan split extends to how pandemic is being perceived 

OVER THE WEEKEND, public health experts warned that the national death toll from the coronavirus could kill up to 200,000 people, escalating the risk faced by the country. Despite these new warnings from the federal government, the response on the ground remains a patchwork of restrictions and recommendations as governors in red and blue states approach the pandemic response in their own ways.

Even in solid blue Massachusetts, partisanship is at play. New data from the MassINC/Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts coronavirus tracking poll show Democrats are more likely to think coronavirus poses a “very serious” threat to people across Massachusetts (77 percent vs. 58 percent of Republicans). This gap has persisted since the first wave of the survey in mid-March, when 70 percent of Democrats and 48 percent of Republicans called coronavirus a “serious threat” to Massachusetts. In the latest wave more Democrats say the threat posed to Massachusetts by the coronavirus is getting “more serious” (76 percent vs. 59 percent), while more Republicans see the threat level as “staying the same” (34 percent vs. 19 percent).

There are also gaps between Democrats and Republicans when it comes to the severity of the threat posed to their city or town (62 percent vs. 46 percent who call it a “very serious” threat) and elderly people (95 percent vs. 82 percent). Meanwhile, 52 percent of Democrats and 42 percent of Republicans consider the threat “very serious” to themselves personally. Similar proportions in each party are taking social distancing steps: they are not seeing or visiting anyone (65 percent of Democrats  vs. 59 percent of Republicans), only going to stores if it is essential (74 percent vs. 75 percent), and understand “very well” what they are personally supposed to do to help slow the spread of coronavirus (85 percent vs. 92 percent).

Elsewhere in the data, there are significant differences over how long Democrats and Republicans think coronavirus will disrupt daily life. While Democrats see longer disruptions ahead, Republicans are more likely to think daily life will resume more quickly.

In the most recent wave of the survey conducted between March 24th and March 29th, 54 percent of Democrats say coronavirus will disrupt daily life for two months or more, similar to the 53 percent who said so in the previous wave of the survey (March 20-23) and up from 47 percent in the first wave (March 16-19).

Meanwhile, only 44 percent of Republicans think daily life will be disrupted for two months or more in the most recent wave. This represents an increase since the first wave of the survey, when only 26 percent of Republicans thought so. Still, a majority of Republicans think the crisis will be over in two months or less, including 33 percent who think it will be over in less than a month. Democrats, meanwhile, are more skeptical that the effects of coronavirus will be short-lived. Just 14 percent think disruptions to daily life will be kept to under a month, down from 21 percent in the first wave in mid-March.

National data suggest these differences over the length and threat of the virus could be a result of perceptions of the news media. In a report released on March 18 (during the first wave of our Massachusetts survey), the Pew Research Center found 76 percent of Republicans thought the news media has exaggerated the risks associated with coronavirus, including a majority (53 percent) who say the risks have been “greatly” exaggerated. Democrats, meanwhile, are more likely than Republicans to say the news media has gotten the risk level about right (41 percent vs. 17 percent). The report also found that Republicans who mostly rely on news sources with right-leaning audiences are more likely than other Republicans to think the risks of coronavirus have been exaggerated.

Meet the Author

Maeve Duggan

Research director, MassINC Polling Group
Mixed messages can muddy the risk that remains as coronavirus cases continue to tick upward, including in Massachusetts. This is a story with historic levels of attention — 71 percent of Massachusetts residents say they are following news of coronavirus “very closely,” the highest proportion recorded across major news events the MassINC Polling Group has tracked over the years. In a time when accurate information can quite literally save lives, these results offer a disturbing reminder of how polarization can also threaten our wellbeing.

Maeve Duggan is research director at the MassINC Polling Group.