A Partisan Pandemic: How COVID-19 Was Primed for Polarization

Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
Subject MatterPoliticization
ANNALS, AAPSS, 700, March 2022 55
DOI: 10.1177/00027162221083686
A Partisan
Pandemic: How
COVID-19 Was
Primed for
Americans who affiliate with both major political par-
ties rapidly formed diverging attitudes about the
COVID-19 pandemic. Matters of scientific concern
have elicited partisan reactions in the past, but partisan
divergence of opinion on those issues occurred over
decades rather than months. We review evidence on
factors that led to polarization of previous scientific
issues in an effort to explain why reactions diverged so
quickly this time around. We then use publicly available
survey data to reveal that partisan reactions to the pan-
demic were closely associated with trust in public
health institutions, that the association between parti-
sanship and trust increased over time, and that the
conflation of trust and partisanship appears to largely
explain polarized reactions to COVID-19. We also
investigate the hypothesis that conservative media use
might explain polarization but find that the hypothesis
is not supported by our data.
Keywords: polarization; trust in science; public health;
coronavirus; partisanship
Shortly after the United States reported its
first known COVID-19-related death on
February 29, 2020, the country seemed poised
to come together to address the impending
threat of a global pandemic (Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention [CDC] 2020).
On March 13, President Trump declared a
Austin Hegland is a PhD student in the Department of
Communication and Media at the University of
Michigan. His research interests center on the way
individuals engage in politics and civic life through
media, particularly the news media.
Annie Li Zhang is a PhD student in the Department of
Communication and Media at the University of
Michigan. Her research interests focus on how media
influences our understanding of and engagement with
scientific issues.
Brianna Zichettella is a PhD student in the Department
of Communication and Media at the University of
Michigan. Her research focuses on affective polariza-
tion and interparty conflict in U.S. politics.
Correspondence: jpasek@umich.edu
national public health emergency related to the spreading virus, a move sup-
ported by politicians of both parties. Even then, partisan differences existed
concerning the virus (Deane, Parker, and Gramlich 2021), but these may have
reflected the fact that cases were detected in urban and more Democratic areas
before they spread to more Republican and rural areas (cf. Allcott etal. 2020).
By mid-April, though, Americans’ opinions regarding the pandemic had diverged
not just in terms of general concern, but also in terms of policy preferences—
Republican groups challenged Democratic governors on what they considered
overly broad emergency orders, organizing large protests in Lansing (MI),
Richmond (VA), and St. Paul (MN), which were backed by then-president Trump
(Haberman 2020). By June, 76 percent of Democrats said they usually wore
masks in stores versus only 53 percent of Republicans (Kramer 2020). And what
initially appeared to be a nonpartisan public health issue had morphed into a
highly polarized one, affecting partisans’ attitudes and behaviors, as well as their
support for various preventative measures and policies. Why did responses
toward COVID-19 polarize so quickly? Why did they polarize at all?
To understand what happened, we draw from research on divergence in
Americans’ perceptions of other scientific issues that have entered the policy
domain. In general, explanations for scientific polarization rely on three basic
mechanisms: (1) general differences toward science driven by political elites
(e.g., Brulle, Carmichael, and Jenkins 2012), (2) differences in trust toward pub-
lic health institutions and officials (e.g., Mooney 2005), and (3) differences in the
information that different groups receive about scientific issues (e.g., Feldman
etal. 2012). Solid evidence bolsters each of these claims with respect to issues
like anthropogenic climate change and belief in evolution (Miller, Scott, and
Okamoto 2006). And each type of explanation has also been posited to explain
diverging partisan reactions to the coronavirus pandemic (Deane, Parker, and
Gramlich 2021). In this article, we test how well key expectations from each hold
up in explaining partisan reactions to COVID-19.
General Partisan Differences Driven by Political Elites
Although Americans across political parties agree more than they disagree when it
comes to significant political issues, party elites often have strong, diverging views on
those same issues (Fiorina 2017). For instance, most Americans in both
Josh Pasek is an associate professor of communication & media and political science and core
faculty at the Michigan Institute for Data Science at the University of Michigan. His research
explores how media and psychological processes shape political attitudes, public opinion, and
political behaviors; and methods for social measurement.
NOTE: The authors thank Jamie Druckman, Robin Bayes, Jon Krosnick, and Mashail Malik
for helpful thoughts on drafts of the article. We also profusely thank Chris Jackson, Mallory
Newall, and Frances Barlas at IPSOS and Margaret Talev and Sara Goo at Axios for creating
an excellent dataset, availing it for our use during this project, and answering questions about
the data collection process.

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