Political Partisanship and the Pandemic

Researchers in Stony Brook University’s political science department have been keeping tabs on the coronavirus. They aren’t tracking the number of new COVID-19 cases or deaths or how many people have been vaccinated or where the next outbreak will occur. Instead, these social scientists are looking at the relationship between the pandemic and political partisanship.

Professors John Barry Ryan and Yanna Krupnikov – in collaboration with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, Northwestern University and the University of Arizona – were originally analyzing how Americans viewed their political opposites. But when the pandemic hit, the researchers began to trace respondents’ reactions to the coronavirus as an indicator of their political biases. 

“What was great about this survey is we already had their attitude towards the parties,” Ryan said. “And so we can see if they changed in response to COVID, but we can also see how their previous attitudes towards the parties shaped how they responded to COVID.”

Graph provided by John Barry Ryan and Yanna Krupnikov

The researchers defined political partisans as people who strongly support their political parties to the point that they are unwilling to compromise with the opposition party and actually hold it in contempt. 

Ryan said the pandemic was a good lens for studying partisanship. Case counts and death rates were clear indicators of how the pandemic was being handled as opposed to other issues such as the state of the economy, where multiple complex factors are at play and room exists for broad subjective analysis and competing philosophies.

The most telling results of the survey came in the beginning of the pandemic, when states began to lock down. “In areas where there’s not a lot of cases, you see greater partisan splits,” he said. “And as the cases go up, you see the partisans coming together, responding in sort of similar ways.” 

This is because partisans in COVID-19 hot spots had similar experiences. Republicans had to be “hit over the head,” as Ryan put it, with the danger that the pandemic could cause in their communities to favor lockdowns and more restrictive policies. 

In areas with low COVID case counts, Republicans displayed some form of denial about the pandemic’s severity, while Democrats exhibited what Ryan called an “obsession” with safety precautions, vaccines and news surrounding the pandemic.

The research also focused on how partisans reacted to former President Donald Trump through his response to COVID-19. One method the researchers used involved how they phrased questions on the survey. In one version of the survey, participants were asked if Trump handled the pandemic well, while in another they were asked if the country was handling the pandemic well. 

“In areas where there’s not a lot of cases, you see greater partisan splits. And as the cases go up, you see the partisans coming together, responding in sort of similar ways.” 

– John Barry Ryan, Ph.D., associate professor of political science at Stony Brook University

“These are the same questions. There is no difference between Donald Trump and the United States, Donald Trump is the United States,” Ryan said – or he was because he was still president when the survey was conducted. “And for Democrats, that means everything that the U.S. does is terrible. For Republicans everything the U.S. does is great. Regardless of what the reality is.”

How the question is framed affects the ferocity of the partisan response, the researchers noted. “So you get this sort of thing where you say Donald Trump and it activates the partisan response in people,” Ryan explained. “But when you just say the United States, they all kind of say, ‘Eh, it’s not great, not terrible, we’re sort of in the middle.’” 

Ryan said the research can help policymakers craft their messages to target different groups. If policymakers understand their audiences, including partisans, they could better communicate about policy pertaining to the virus, even as the pandemic winds down. 

Ryan and his colleagues have published three academic articles on their surveys and plan to compile the results in a book. 

Listen to more of Alek Lewis’ report:

Read about their research in the Journal of Experimental Political Science and in Nature Human Behavior.