American Attitudes Toward COVID-19: More Trumpism Than Partisanship

Date01 January 2022
Published date01 January 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 50(1) 67 –82
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211046251
President Trump and partisan conflict were front and center
as COVID-19 engulfed the United States—and the world.
The United States suffered worse than most other countries
from COVID-19 in terms of reported cases and mortality.1
Critics argue that this was at least partly due to President
Donald Trump’s leadership, calling COVID-19 “no worse
than seasonal flu,” and “a political conspiracy to destroy the
Trump presidency,” and his public mocking of individuals
who wore masks, which weakened public compliance of
measures that would have restricted COVID-19’s spread
(Coppins, 2020; Kristof, 2020; Krugman, 2020). Empirical
research emphasizes the role of rising political partisanship
on public attitudes and action concerning COVID-19 (Allcott
et al., 2020; Barrios & Hochberg, 2020; Bursztyn et al.,
2020; Gadarian et al., 2020; Milosh et al., 2020; Platzman &
Shapiro, 2020; Simonov et al., 2020).2 Republicans were
generally more cavalier about the pandemic, less likely to
practice social distancing and mask-use in public, and more
likely to oppose business closures and lockdowns that were
designed to contain the pandemic (Clinton et al., 2021; Fan
et al., 2020).3
President Trump’s response to the pandemic in public
debates was associated with political differences in attitudes
and perceptual biases—including the evoking of “motivated
reasoning” on steroids (e.g., Garrett, 2009; Redlawsk et al.,
2010; Taber & Lodge, 2006; Taber et al., 2009)—in how
each side saw the reality and threat of the outbreak, and how
the ideologically divided nation and states responded. Yet,
the question remains: what was the greatest cue to public
opinion and action on COVID-19: the party or the
In this paper, we investigate how support for President
Donald Trump, beyond partisanship, guided Americans’ atti-
tudes toward COVID-19. This speaks to not just how
“Trumpism” and the Trump administration’s handling of the
pandemic influenced public attitudes but to the larger issue
of how Trump’s hold on voters within and beyond the
Republican Party provides evidence that leaders surpass the
role of parties in influencing public opinion. Our research
adds to the literature on the role of parties versus leaders in
American democracy (Barber & Pope, 2019; Key, 1961;
1046251APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211046251American Politics ResearchKaushal et al.
1Columbia University, New York, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Neeraj Kaushal, Columbia University, 1255 Amsterdam Avenue, New
York, NY 10027-6902, USA.
American Attitudes Toward COVID-19:
More Trumpism Than Partisanship
Neeraj Kaushal1, Yao Lu1, Robert Y. Shapiro1,
and Jennifer So1
We investigate how support for President Donald Trump, beyond partisanship, guided Americans’ attitudes toward
COVID-19. This speaks to not just how “Trumpism” and the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic influenced
public attitudes but to the larger issue of how Trump’s hold on voters within and beyond the Republican Party provides
further evidence that leaders surpass the role of parties in influencing public opinion. Using longitudinal data with individual
fixed-effects, we find that from the start of the pandemic, support for Trump above and beyond partisanship drove public
attitudes capturing skepticism toward COVID-19, fears of personal vulnerability, compliance with public-safety measures,
and viewing the pandemic in racist terms. Between March and August 2020, this gulf in attitudes between Trump voters and
non-supporters, and between Republicans and Democrats, widened; the widening was more pronounced between Trump
voters and non-supporters. Trump’s influence on Independents and non-voters also grew over the same period. While the
use of terms like “China virus” was related to partisanship and support for Trump, we find an increase in awareness across
groups that these terms were racist.
partisanship, political polarization, racism, COVID-19
68 American Politics Research 50(1)
2 American Politics Research 00(0)
Page & Shapiro, 1992; Page et al., 1987; Zaller, 1992), yet
differs in an important respect from previous research in that
we investigate public attitudes on COVID-19 related issues.
These issues are new and, a-priori, non-ideological in that
they do not conform to the core ideology of the Republican
Party. We investigate how Trump’s personal views and rheto-
ric, that quickly became partisan, impacted public opinion on
COVID-19 among Trump supporters, Republicans,
Democrats, and Independents. We argue that because
Trump’s views and rhetoric on COVID-19 do not emanate
from the core ideology of the Republican party, its impact
would not necessarily be limited to Republicans, but may be
greater among Trump’s non-Republican supporters. Further,
Trump’s rhetoric to minimize the dangers of the pandemic
grew louder as the election came closer and COVID-19
emerged as an electoral threat to the President. Whether its
impact increased is an empirical issue that we investigate in
the paper.
We use two waves of a longitudinal survey to investigate,
first, how did public attitudes (skepticism, fears, prejudices,
and response) toward COVID-19 change among individuals
with different political affiliations between March and
August as the pandemic spread across the country? Did the
partisan and Trump divide in attitudes widen or narrow?
Second, if the political influences were dominant, was the
conflict found in public opinion toward COVID-19 driven
primarily by partisanship or did Trump evoke and amplify
them further?
We define partisanship and support for Trump as follows:
(i) self-identified party identification as Republican (includ-
ing Independent “leaners”), Democrat (also including “lean-
ers”), and Independent/other (hereafter Independents); and
(ii) self-reported Trump voters in 2016, voters for candidates
other than Trump, and non-voters. For ease of exposition,
hereafter, we use the term Trump supporters to describe
Trump voters in 2016; Trump opponents to describe those
who voted for other candidates in 2016. In the empirical
analysis, we estimate multivariate statistical models using
partisan affiliation versus support for Trump separately.
Further, to examine the extent to which “Trumpism,” so to
speak, increased political conflict in the U.S., we create a
third measure that combines the first two measures in five
categories: Republican Trump supporters; Republican Trump
opponents; Non-Republican (mostly Independent) Trump
supporters; Democrat Trump opponents and Independent
Trump opponents.
Note that our measures of partisanship and Trumpism are
based on data that were collected before the first survey
wave. These data are part of the information that YouGov,
our survey agency, routinely collects on the survey panel.
This reduces the possibility of endogeneity between our
measures of partisanship and Trumpism and public attitudes
toward COVID-19. Further, use of longitudinal data with
individual fixed effects strengthens causal interpretations.
To preview, as expected based on extant research, we find
that from the start of the pandemic, public attitudes toward
COVID-19 were deeply divided along party lines as well as
among Trump supporters and opponents. These gaps wid-
ened over the next 5 months. Importantly, at the start of the
pandemic, non-Republican (mostly Independents) Trump
supporters were generally more skeptical of the pandemic,
less likely to practice social distancing, and more racist than
Republican Trump supporters, suggesting that the reach of
Trumpism on COVID-related attitudes advocated by
President Trump went beyond the partisan divide. Over the
5 months that followed, the skepticism toward COVID-19
increased among all groups, including Independents, with
the exception of Democrats Trump opponents. Such an
increase in political conflict exacerbated the already difficult
political environment for managing the COVID-19 public
health crisis.
Parties, Leaders, and Democracy
Studying public opinion is central to the study of democracy
because of how the public can influence what governments
do directly or indirectly through the election of its leaders
who are held accountable at election time (see Shapiro,
2011). The public, however, is not autonomous and all-
knowing, and it depends heavily on having information and
guidance available. Leaders, broadly defined to include those
inside and outside of government positions and party poli-
tics, are central to this, and what they say and do is commu-
nicated to the public through the mass media (see Key, 1961;
Page & Shapiro, 1992; Page et al., 1987; Zaller, 1992).
There is tension, however, in emphasizing the effect of
formal political leadership, especially persuasive leadership,
on public opinion. That the public can be influenced by lead-
ers is seemingly at odds with the expectation for democratic
accountability: that leaders should be responding to the pub-
lic and not the reverse (see Lenz, 2012). Whether leaders
should lead or follow public opinion is a dilemma, and how
this plays out can vary by issues and political context (cf.
Shapiro, 2011). But there is no getting around that the public
needs and depends on information and guidance from leaders
(Key, 1961).
This dependence on leadership, however, does not mean
that the public as a whole is easily persuaded or led by politi-
cal leaders, with presidents as prominent ones. Efforts by
presidents to change public opinion have historically had
limited persuasive effects (e.g., Edwards, 2003) or depended
on the support and trust presidents have had at particular
times (see Page & Shapiro, 1984, 1992). On the other hand,
while leaders may not affect the public as a whole there are
theoretical reasons and increasing evidence that partisan or
ideological leaders can influence partisan subgroups. This is
consistent with Zaller’s (1992) two-message theoretical
model, which postulates that when partisan leaders or other

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