A study found evidence to suggest that political opinion does not significantly shape people’s perceptions of the COVID-19 pandemic from a local standpoint.
A recent study found that people’s perceptions on the severity of the pandemic were connected to actual county-case rates, even though liberals and Democrats tended to perceive the pandemic as more severe than conservatives and Republicans.
The study was published in the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law.
This political contrast was also observed among CNN viewers, who perceived the pandemic as more severe than Fox News viewers. However, despite political belief, very limited evidence suggests an association between perceptions of the pandemic from a local perspective and political outcomes.
“While there is definitely politics going on in terms of the way people perceive the COVID-19 pandemic, it's not drowning out what’s happening in real life,” Jake Haselswerdt, an associate professor of political science at the Truman School of Government and Public Affairs at the University of Missouri-Columbia, said in a statement. “The real public health trends are still getting through to people.”
The primary data for this study came from the 2020 Cooperative Election Study (CES), a nationally representative sample of 50 000 American adults, in which the researchers sourced 1000 respondents.
First, the researchers compared CES data and county-level COVID-19 rates. The researchers examined predictors of people’s perceptions on the severity of the pandemic during the fall of 2020. The researchers also examined whether the respondents were aware of localized messages concerning the burden of disease. Characteristics such as the respondent’s partisanship and media consumption were recorded.
Second, the researchers examined whether these perceptions were associated with public opinion and behavior that would affect political outcomes, such as pandemic policies, voter turnout in the 2020 election, voting for former President Donald Trump, voting for House of Representative candidates, and approval of national and state elected officials.
As a result, the researchers found that respondents who described themselves as liberals or Democrats had a 20% chance of perceiving the pandemic as “below average” in severity, while those who identified as conservative, or Republican, had a 46% chance of viewing the pandemic as “below average” in severity.
Women also gave higher severity estimates than men, which the researchers believe may be due to unequal economic impact. Additionally, older respondents were more likely to underestimate the severity of COVID-19, which the researchers found alarming, seeing that this age demographic is considered a high-risk population for worse outcomes from SARS-CoV-2 infection.
When evaluating 24-hour coverage of news media outlets, the likelihood of answering “above average” severity decreased by 6% in respondents who watched Fox News, while respondents who watched CNN had an increased likelihood of 15% in answering “above average.”
Furthermore, those who watched CNN, and especially those who listened to radio broadcasts, were more educated, and had higher political knowledge were the most attuned to the real case rates in their local communities.
The results from this study were similar to that of a previous study by the same authors on the opioid epidemic and political voting behavior. And similar to that study, this study found no significant correlation between public perceptions and political outcomes.
Although this study provides evidence suggesting political consequences from the pandemic, researchers acknowledge that this study was subjective in measure, in which only estimates could be examined. The researchers called for further research into the relationships between public opinion and political outcome that may be causal in nature, rather than objective.
“Not surprisingly, we found people who believe the situation was more severe in their counties were more supportive of restrictions, like mask mandates and closing K-12 schools and businesses,” Haselswerdt said in the statement. “On the other hand, we found no relationship between county-level perceptions of the pandemic and the way respondents say they voted in the 2020 election.”
Haselswerdt J, Gollust S. Awareness of COVID-19 at the local level: perceptions and political consequences. J Health Polit Policy Law. Published online November 23, 2022. doi:10.1215/03616878-10351896