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How Concerned Are Americans About Coronavirus So Far?

Welcome to Pollapalooza, our weekly polling roundup.

Poll(s) of the week

Depending on what data you look at, more than 1,500 Americans have been diagnosed with coronavirus — or close to 1,200 — although neither count reflects how many people might be infected. It’s a hard disease to track, because there’s still so much we don’t know.

At this point, though, Americans have started to form opinions about the seriousness of the threat of coronavirus, and overall, they’re concerned. In six polls conducted between Feb. 25 and March 11, anywhere from 45 to 57 percent of Americans said they were either very or somewhat concerned about themselves, their family members or members of their community contracting the disease.

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However, there are some pretty stark differences in how Democrats and Republicans view the threat of coronavirus. Some polls, like a recent Quinnipiac University survey, show just one-third of Republicans expressing concern, compared with 68 percent of Democrats. Other pollsters have found a narrower gap — in a recent Public Policy Polling survey, for instance, 44 percent of Republicans said they were concerned versus 67 percent of Democrats. But as you can see in the table below, a partisan split is emerging:

Democrats are more concerned about coronavirus

Share of respondents who said that they were either very or somewhat concerned* about themselves, their family members or community members of their community contracting coronavirus

Pollster Overall Democrats Republicans
USA Today/Ipsos 54% 62% 48%
Quinnipiac 54 68 35
NYT/Survey Monkey 49 62 38
Economist/YouGov 47 63 33
Civiqs 45 67 24
Public Policy Polling 57 67 44

* For USA Today/Ipsos, we combined those who said they were concerned “a great deal” and “a fair amount.”

The USA Today/Ipsos poll was conducted from March 10-11, Quinnipiac from March 5–8, NYT/Survey Monkey from March 2–8, Economist/YouGov from March 1–3, Civiqs from Feb. 25–March 10 and Public Policy Polling from March 2–3.

Source: Polls

This party-line split isn’t that surprising, though: According to experts, many public health issues — which are seemingly nonpartisan — have become increasingly polarizing.

Sarah Gollust, professor of health policy and management at the University of Minnesota, said that a similar rift emerged in 2009 during the swine flu outbreak and in 2014 during the Ebola virus outbreak. Democrats were much more likely than Republicans to think former President Barack Obama handled those epidemics well.

In April 2009, for instance, a Gallup poll found that 83 percent of Democrats approved of the Obama administration’s handling of the swine flu caused by the H1N1 virus, while just 47 percent of Republicans approved. Similarly in October 2014, a CBS News poll found that 71 percent of Democrats approved of Obama’s handling of the Ebola virus, while just 23 percent of Republicans approved.

“People are more likely to believe the team in charge is doing a good job if they’re on their team,” Gollust said.

This partisan loyalty is somewhat reflected in Americans’ approval of how President Trump is handling the coronavirus. Overall, between 37 and 47 percent said they approve of the way Trump has handled coronavirus, according to six polls conducted between March 1 and March 8. But as you can see in the table, there is a sharp partisan split.

Big partisan splits on Trump’s handling of coronavirus

Share of respondents who said they approve* of the way Trump is handling coronavirus

Pollster Overall Democrats Republicans
Quinnipac 43% 10% 87%
NYT/Survey Monkey 47 16 86
CNN/SSRS 41 10 79
Public Policy Polling 42 12 79
Reuters/Ipsos 37 15 75
Economist/YouGov 37 11 85

* For Economist/YouGov and NYT/Survey Monkey, we combined those who strongly and somewhat approved. For Reuter/Ipsos, we included those who leaned towards approval as well.

The Quinnipiac poll was conducted from March 5-8, NYT/Survey Monkey from March 2-8, CNN/SSRS from March 4-7, Public Policy Polling from March 2-3, Reuters/Ipsos from March 2-3 and Economist/YouGov from March 1–3.

Source: Polls

Melina Platas, professor of political science at New York University Abu Dhabi, said how much Republicans and Democrats trust the president could also impact how serious they think the virus is, especially given Trump has been at odds with other government agencies in messaging about coronavirus. In fact, a late-February YouGov poll found that Republicans are roughly split on whether to believe the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which warned that coronavirus outbreaks are likely to hit the U.S, or the president who said that coronavirus is “very well under control in our country.” Twenty-eight percent of Republicans said they believed the CDC, compared with 27 percent who said they believed the president. Another 28 percent said they believe both the CDC and Trump equally. Meanwhile, an overwhelming majority of Democrats (83 percent) said they believe the CDC over the president.

“The fact that the president has been downplaying the public health threat, for example, comparing it favorably to the flu, which he tweeted about [Monday], or saying that the media is exaggerating the threat might explain why Republicans are less worried about coronavirus than Democrats,” Platas said.

And Gollust said that not taking the threat of the virus seriously can reduce the likelihood of people taking preventive action, too. “From a public health perspective, it’s most concerning to see that partisan differences emerge around how big a threat [it is] and how serious to take those risks of COVID-19,” she said.

Recent polling already highlights some differences in how seriously Democrats and Republicans are approaching preventative actions they can take. For example, even though the CDC recommends avoiding large events to avoid spreading the virus, an Axios/SurveyMonkey poll released Tuesday found that 67 percent of Democrats said they were at least somewhat likely to avoid large events, while only 49 percent of Republicans said the same. Similarly, 53 percent of Democrats in that same poll said they were avoiding public spaces like restaurants or theaters, compared with 37 percent of Republicans.

It’s important to remember though that some of the partisan split we’re currently seeing might change, especially if the virus continues to spread. And at this point, much of the polling we have is in the wake of relatively few public cases, concentrated largely in a few states — Washington, New York and California. Platas told me that this could mean that some of the policy and personal guidelines have been entirely hypothetical for some people. But, she added, as the virus spreads and hits people closer to home, the threat may become more real and perhaps the partisan divide will narrow.

Other polling bites

  • On Thursday, the Dow Jones Industrial Average and S&P 500 had its worst drop since the 1987 market crash, known as Black Monday, because of fears of coronavirus. There’s reason to believe that Americans are concerned about the stock market right now, too. In a YouGov poll conducted on Tuesday, 62 percent of Americans, including 64 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans, said what happens in the stock market matters a great deal or somewhat to them. Overall, 30 percent say it doesn’t matter that much or at all.
  • According to a recent Economist/YouGov poll, just 13 percent of Americans think it’s definitely or probably true that coronavirus is a hoax. There’s a pretty stark age gap, as just 6 percent of Americans over 65 say it’s a hoax compared with 19 percent of Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 and 20 percent of Americans between the ages of 30 to 44.
  • In that same Economist/YouGov poll, slightly more than half of Americans, including 77 percent of Democrats and 29 percent of Republicans, think the federal government should increase the amount of money it spends on preventing the spread of infectious diseases.
  • Last week, Sen. Elizabeth Warren said in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow that presidential candidates are “responsible for the people who claim to be our supporters and do really dangerous, threatening things to other candidates.” But Americans are split on the issue. Forty-five percent of Americans said they thought presidential candidates should be held responsible for the actions of their supporters, while 32 percent think they should not be held responsible, according to a recent YouGov poll.
  • According to a recent Morning Consult poll, 41 percent of Americans said their employer has made hand sanitizer available as a precautionary measure protecting the workplace from coronavirus. Separately, 16 percent said their employer recommended employees not shake hands and 13 percent said their employee allowed employees to work from home.

Trump approval

According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker, 42.3 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 53.2 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -10.9 points). At this time last week, 42.9 percent approved and 52.9 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -10 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 43.3 percent and a disapproval rating of 52.2 percent, for a net approval rating of -8.9 points.

Generic ballot

In our average of polls of the generic congressional ballot, Democrats currently lead by 7.1 percentage points (48.8 percent to 41.7 percent). A week ago, Democrats led Republicans by 6.9 points (48.0 percent to 41.1 percent). At this time last month, voters preferred Democrats by 5.6 points (47.3 percent to 41.7 percent).

Check out all the polls we’ve been collecting ahead of the 2020 elections.

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Likhitha Butchireddygari was a politics intern at FiveThirtyEight.