Insights / Research BriefJul 17, 2020

How COVID-19 is Changing Americans’ Behaviors, Expectations, and Political Views

Marianne Bertrand, Guglielmo Briscese, Maddalena Grignani, Salma Nassar
While strong divisions persist across party lines, personal experiences with COVID-19, such as loss of income, may affect views and preferences among Americans.

This research offers insights into the evolving reactions of Americans to the COVID-19 pandemic along political lines, including their reactions to mask-wearing and the likelihood of further lockdowns. The project consists of seven survey waves beginning in April 2020 and ending in November 2020. These three select findings are compiled from the first five waves, conducted from April 6 to May 18.[1]

1. A loss of income due to the pandemic led many to admit that COVID-19 crisis is worse than they expected, with this effect mitigated by the choice of news source.

In the first wave of the survey, commencing April 6, 35% of Republicans said the media were exaggerating the virus’ threat, compared to only 9% of Democrats. In the fourth wave beginning April 27, 57% of Republicans said the pandemic was worse than they expected, compared with 82% of Democrats. Importantly, as illustrated in the accompanying figure, respondents who lost income were more likely to report that COVID-19 was worse than anticipated: 62% vs. 48% for Republicans, and 84% vs. 75% for Democrats. Regarding media influence, among Republicans, 44% of those who watched Fox News were significantly less likely to report that the virus was worse than expected, compared with 56% of those Republicans who did not watch Fox News. Similarly, among Republicans, those who did not support Trump were 50% more likely to report that the crisis was worse than expected than those expected to vote for Trump.

2. An important factor influencing support for mask wearing is trust in the scientific community. This has decreased significantly among Republicans since the start of the pandemic.

Between the beginning and end of April 2020 (waves one through four), Democrats’ confidence in the scientific community was mostly unchanged, 70% vs. 68%. For Republicans, those numbers fell from 51% to 38%.

3. Political views and perception of the gravity of the crisis also influenced the likelihood of anticipating a second lockdown.

At the end of April, about 30% of Republicans said that the government should fully reopen the economy in May, compared to about 5% of Democrats. In Mid-May, the authors asked 398 Democrats and Republicans whether they thought their state would need to reintroduce lockdown measures before the end of the year; 43% of Republicans said that such a lockdown was likely vs. 76% of Democrats.

Finally, while the authors do not hazard predictions, they stress that their research reveals the influence of dramatic events in changing or reinforcing people’s views and preferences, even if those events occur over a short period. Their next survey, slated for October, will likely provide key insights leading into the election.

[1] Researchers at the Poverty Lab and the Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation at the University of Chicago are conducting this longitudinal survey in partnership with NORC at the University of Chicago, an independent, non-partisan research institution. The findings refer to different time frames according to the questions analyzed. Surveys are administered to the same sample of more than 1,400 Americans based on NORC’s probability-based AmeriSpeak Panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population.