Rank-and-file Republican voters are still generally supportive of social distancing and other measures to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus, even after conservative protesters in several states, some conservatives elites and President Trump have denounced virus-related restrictions.
Polls over the past month found that Republicans were less supportive of such measures than Democrats, but they were still in favor overall. For most of that period, though, there wasn’t really a vocal movement arguing against social distancing. That changed toward the end of last week, particularly with the protests, which were fairly small but got a lot of media coverage. In the wake of the protests and Trump’s support of them, I had expected conservative and Republican voters to become more opposed to social distancing since voters often take cues from party leaders and elites.
But they haven’t so far.
A plurality of rank-and-file Republicans don’t agree with the protesters.
Forty-seven percent of Republicans oppose the protesters who are criticizing social distancing, compared with 36 percent who support them, according to a Yahoo/YouGov survey conducted Friday through Sunday. When asked whether they were more supportive of the governor of their state or more supportive of the protesters in terms of stay-at-home orders, 62 percent of Republicans said they supported their governor more, compared with 26 percent who aligned with the protesters, per polling conducted Saturday through Monday by the left-leaning survey research firm Navigator Research. To date at least, the protesters do not represent a majority view in the Republican Party, let alone the country as a whole. You can also see this when you look at polling data on the issues under debate, protests aside. For instance …
Republicans still favor social distancing.
In a HuffPost/YouGov survey conducted Friday through Sunday, only 25 percent of Republicans said there were too many coronavirus-related restrictions in the area where they live, while 52 percent said there were “about the right number” of restrictions. For comparison, just 6 percent of Democrats said there were too many restrictions, 60 percent said the current number of restrictions was appropriate, and 29 percent said there were not enough restrictions.
Similarly, the Navigator Research polling found that 51 percent of Republicans agreed that “we are currently doing the right thing when it comes to social distancing,” compared with 24 percent who favor more aggressive social distancing and just 21 percent who want fewer restrictions.1
When asked about shelter-in-place orders, only 32 percent of Republicans thought “the cure is worse than the disease,” according to the Yahoo/YouGov survey. This compares with 68 percent who think that implementing those orders is the only way to stop the spread of the virus.
And finally, a Monmouth University poll of New Jersey residents conducted last Thursday through Sunday found that at least 80 percent of Republicans in the state support limiting restaurants to take-out and delivery orders only, banning large gatherings and closing gyms, libraries, child care centers and schools amid the virus outbreak.2
In short, survey research has consistently shown that most Republicans support social distancing right now. However …
Republicans are more divided over how long social distancing should last and its potential effect on the economy.
When asked in the HuffPost/YouGov survey whether they were more concerned that states would lift the stay-at-home orders too quickly or not quickly enough, 46 percent of Republicans said too quickly compared with 42 percent who said not quickly enough.
Per the Navigator poll, Republicans are also about equally divided between two camps: those most worried that coronavirus restrictions will last too long “and cause unnecessary damage to the economy and Americans’ livelihoods” (40 percent) and those most worried that “social distancing will end too soon and prolong the epidemic” (45 percent). Similarly, according to the Yahoo/YouGov survey, 51 percent of Republicans think the U.S. should “reopen” when “public health officials are fully able to test and trace new cases and outbreaks,” while 49 percent favor reopening “as soon as possible to prevent further economic damage.”
So when the issue is put explicitly into an economic context and people are asked to project into the future, GOP support for the current restrictions drops — but only to a point where the issue divides the party pretty evenly.
All this could change.
It’s worth noting that at least one survey suggests Republicans are trending toward disapproving of social distancing, perhaps motivated by party elites. An Ipsos-Reuters survey conducted April 15-21 found that 55 percent of Republicans supported stay-at-home orders compared with 45 percent who said those orders should be lifted to get the economy going again. But the share of Republicans who want the orders lifted has increased substantially from the previous Ipsos-Reuters poll, conducted March 30-31, when only 24 percent of Republicans favored lifting them.3
We could, in other words, see Republican views aligning more closely with those of Trump and the conservative voices backing the protests. Why, then, aren’t those voters already taking cues from them? The simplest (and probably best) explanation is that rank-and-file Republicans support social distancing on its merits — in this case taking the view of public health experts over voices they usually align with politically. But it’s also worth noting that ending social distancing and other measures intended to stop the spread of COVID-19 is a position that conservative elites are not unified around. For example, Sen. Lindsey Graham, normally a stalwart Trump ally, has expressed wariness about lifting coronavirus-related restrictions too soon.
Even the White House has been sending mixed messages. Trump has been sympathetic toward the anti-social-distancing protesters, but he has not made a full-throated case against coronavirus-related restrictions. (In fact, on Wednesday night, Trump criticized Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp for not keeping some restrictions in place, surprising some, including the governor and his staff.) And Trump has allowed figures in his administration, most notably Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, to continue to strongly advocate for social distancing measures.
So even if Republican voters were taking cues from conservative leaders, those cues aren’t pointing all in one direction — at least right now.
That said, Trump and the GOP activists wary of social distancing likely created the impression of deep conservative discontent with aggressive measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus. And that impression — and the party’s loyalty to Trump and business owners — may spur more conservative politicians to take steps to end social distancing, or at least advocate for doing so. The states that are already moving most quickly to end virus-related restrictions — over the objections of some local officials — are mostly Republican-led. Attorney General William Barr is hinting at filing lawsuits against states with restrictions that he views as too strict. So rank-and-file Republicans haven’t yet been moved en masse to oppose social distancing — but anti-social-distancing conservatives may be getting what they want even if most Republicans don’t support those goals. And GOP voters may move more firmly against social distancing measures if cues from party elites start to point more universally in that direction.