Partisanship, Policy, and Americans’ Evaluations of State-Level COVID-19 Policies Prior to the 2020 Election

AuthorJulie A. VanDusky-Allen,Stephen M. Utych,Michael Catalano
Date01 June 2022
Published date01 June 2022
Subject MatterMini-Symposium: America in the 2020 Elections
Mini-Symposium: America in the 2020 Elections
Political Research Quarterly
2022, Vol. 75(2) 479496
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/10659129211056374
Partisanship, Policy, and Americans
Evaluations of State-Level COVID-19
Policies Prior to the 2020 Election
Julie A. VanDusky-Allen
, Stephen M. Utych
, and Michael Catalano
The COVID-19 pandemic was a key policy issue during the 2020 election in the United States. As such, it is important to
analyze how voters evaluated government responses to the pandemic. To this end, in this article, we examine factors that
inf‌luenced Americansevaluations of state-level COVID-19 policy responses. We f‌ind that during the pandemic onset
period, Americans typically rated their state governmentsresponses more favorably if their gove rnor was a co-partisan.
In contrast, during the re-opening period, we f‌ind that Democrats relied on both partisanship and policy to evaluate their
state-level responses, while Republicans continued to rely solely on partisanship. We contend that given the c omplex
policy environment surrounding COVID-19, Americans may have not been fully aware of the policies their state
governments adopted, so they relied on partisan cues to help them evaluate their state-level policy re sponses. But by the
re-opening period, Americans likely had enough time to better understand state-leve l policy responses; this allowed
Democrats to also evaluate their state-level responses based on policy. These f‌indings shed light on how American s
evaluated COVID-19 responses just prior to the 2020 election.
COVID-19, US State Politics, public health, attitudes of Government performance
In the early months of 2020, policymakers throughout the
US suddenly had to address a complex public health
policy problem at the start of a contentious presidential
election year.
A novel coronavirus had developed in
China and as it spread throughout the world, it became
clear that it was highly contagious and potentially more
deadly than similar respiratory viruses. As lawmakers
scrambled to develop policy responses to mitigate the
spread of COVID-19 throughout the US, public off‌icials
and Americans became divided along partisan lines about
the governments proper role in addressing the crisis.
Democrats favored a more stringent response, but such a
response could come with signif‌icant economic costs.
Republicans, on the other hand, favored a less-stringent
response from the government, which meant COVID-19
could spread more quickly and overwhelm health care
systems throughout the US. It appeared that whichever
approach Democrats and Republicans adopted in re-
sponding to the virus, there would negative side effects
and potential electoral consequences in November.
President Trump, a Republican, failed to adopt a strong
national-level response to the pandemic, so state govern-
ments, led largelyby governors, began adoptingpolicies to
address the crisis. On average, Republican governors
adopted less strict responses while Democrats adopted
stricter responses (Fowler,Kettler,andWitt2021). Eval-
uations of these policy responses from public off‌icials and
media punditsdominated the news cycle, withRepublicans
typically criticizing Democrats for overreaching and
Democrats criticizing Republicans fornot doing enough to
mitigate the spread of the virus. Yet to be explored,
however, is how state-level COVID-19 policy responses
inf‌luenced individual Americansevaluations of state-level
COVID-19 responses. Given that COVID-19 was the
Boise State University, Boise, ID, USA
Binghamton University, Binghamton, NY, USA
Corresponding Author:
Julie A. VanDusky-Allen, Department of Political Science, Boise State
University, 1910 University Drive, Boise, ID 83725, USA.
def‌ining policy issue of the 2020 elections, it is vital to
understandhow voters evaluated how well actorsat various
levels of government handled the crisis.
In this article, we explore how the adoption of COVID-
19 mitigation policies and their effects inf‌luenced
Americansevaluations of state-level off‌icialshandling
of the crisis. We have two theoretical expectations. We
expect that both political considerations (partisanship of
ones governor) and policy considerations (stringency of
COVID-19 response) will inf‌luence attitudes towards
state-level COVID-19 response. First, if Americans care
about policy outcomes, we should expect Democrats to
have rated their state-level policy responses more highly
the more stringent the policies became. In addition, we
should expect Republicans to have rated their state-level
policy responses more highly the less stringent the pol-
icies became. We should also expect that if per capita case
rates and unemployment rates are lower, then Americans
will rate state governmentsresponses better. Neverthe-
less, given that COVID-19 was a complex policy issue, it
is possible that Americans were not fully aware of the
exact policies their state governments adopted and what
the side effects of those policies were. In such an envi-
ronment, individuals likely relied on partisan cues to
evaluate their states policy responses. In other words, it is
possible that Americans evaluated state-level policy re-
sponses higher if their governor was a co-partisan.
To explore how COVID-19 policies, their outcomes,
and individual partisanship inf‌luenced Americanseval-
uations of state-level responses, we used data from two
public opinion polls, two survey experiments, and data on
the stringency of US state-level policy responses to
COVID-19 (Shvetsova et al. 2020b). The f‌indings of our
analyses suggest that during the pandemic onset period,
partisanship, not policy, inf‌luenced Democratsevalua-
tions of their state-level COVID-19 policy responses.
Democrats were simply more satisf‌ied with their state-
level COVID-19 responses if their state was led by a
governor who was a Democrat. Yet, we also f‌ind that
during the re-opening period, both partisanship and policy
outcomes inf‌luenced these evaluations. Democrats re-
mained satisf‌ied if a Democrat led their state and that
satisfaction increased the stricter their state-level COVID-
19 responses became. For Republicans, we found that
only partisanship inf‌luenced their evaluations during the
pandemic onset and re-opening periods, not policy out-
comes. Republicans were simply more satisf‌ied with their
state-level policy responses if their state was led by a
Republican governor.
The f‌indings of this analysis shed light on how voters
evaluated COVID-19 responses at the state level during
the election. While state-level responses did not seem to
inf‌luence Republicansevaluations, they did seem to
inf‌luence Democratsevaluations in the second half of
2020. It is clear that Democrats favored a stronger and
more effective response at the state level. Heading into the
November election, these evaluations likely weighed on
their minds as they decided whether to vote and who to
vote for. Hence, it is unsurprising that just prior to the
2020 election, slightly more than 80% of Democrats said
the state of health care and the COVID-19 outbreak were
very important issues they were considering when making
their vote choices (Pew Research Center 2020).
In the next section, we brief‌ly review the US gov-
ernment policy response to COVID-19. Then, we discuss
Americansattitudes about and their evaluations of these
responses. We then provide support for our expectations
using data from public opinion polls and two experiments.
The last section discusses the implications of the results in
understanding how COVID-19 evaluations inf‌luenced the
2020 election.
COVID-19 and the US Public
Policy Response
On 31 December 2019, the WHO learned that there was
an outbreak of a new respiratory illness in Wuhan, China.
On 9 January 2020, it identif‌ied the illness as a novel
coronavirus. As the virus quickly spread throughout Asia
and then Europe, it became clear that it was highly
contagious, hard to treat, and may have a high death rate
compared to other similar respiratory illnesses. Early
conclusions from public health off‌icials and policy makers
suggested that unmitigated spread could overwhelm un-
prepared healthcare systems. On 11 March 2020, the
WHO declared the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic
(World Health Organization 2020).
The US federal government began responding to
COVID-19 in early January 2020 when it placed travel
restrictions for travelers from Wuhan. As the virus spread
throughout the world, the federal government beganto adopt
additional travel restrictions from countries with cases of
known community transmission. The CDC began providing
guidance to the public about how to mitigate the spread.
However, throughout most of the outbreak, President Trump
downplayed the threat and sent signals to the public that
conf‌licted with advice from public health experts. Compared
to other national governments, the US federal government
adopted relatively few non-pharmaceutical measures to
address the crisis and left it to the states to mitigate the spread
(Adeeletal.2020;Keith 2020;Shvetsova et al. 2020a;
Taylor 2020).
It is not surprising that the President was reluctant to
respond to the crisis. It was an election year and non-
pharmaceutical mitigation measures such as shutting
down businesses and stay at home orders would come at a
signif‌icant economic cost. Economic well-being factors
into many votersdecision to either reward or punish the
480 Political Research Quarterly 75(2)

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