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How Political Is The Coronavirus Pandemic Already?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

sarahf (Sarah Frostenson, politics editor): The U.S. has started to open back up. Late last week, statewide orders to “stay at home” or “shelter in place” because of the new coronavirus expired in many states across the U.S., and roughly half are now partially reopened.

This has led to calls that parts of the country are reopening too soon, and is setting the stage for the coronavirus crisis to become the latest political football.

But what do we actually know about how partisanship has influenced people’s reactions to COVID-19 so far? Do Democrats and Republicans really view the coronavirus differently?

Let’s first talk about what evidence we have that Democrats and Republicans are split in how they view the coronavirus, and what the significance of that is. Then we can shift gears to talk about how politicians on both sides of the aisle are handling the pandemic and how partisanship may (or may not) be a part of the calculus for when a state decides to open back up.

OK, first up, what evidence do we have that Democrats and Republicans are split on how they view the coronavirus?

nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, elections analyst): According to polls, Republicans are less likely to support public health measures due to the coronavirus, but they are just as likely as Democrats and independents to obey them. In other words, Republicans might grumble about some of the preventive measures more, but they’re still taking the same precautions as everyone else.

In addition, it’s wrong to say that all (or even most) Republicans oppose these measures. It’s just that they’re split on them, while Democrats are pretty much unanimously in favor of taking precautions.

For example, an April 28-May 1 poll by Navigator Research found that 32 percent of all registered voters thought we needed stricter social distancing measures, 47 percent said we’re doing the right thing right now and 19 percent said we needed to relax social distancing rules.

Among Republicans, 20 percent wanted stricter rules, 47 percent thought we’re doing the right thing and 32 percent wanted more relaxed rules — so some difference from the overall universe, but those agitating for more freedom of movement were still a minority.

As for personal behaviors, about the same number of Democrats and Republicans were doing things like avoiding social gatherings and spending almost all their time indoors — about 80 percent of each.

seth.masket (Seth Masket, political science professor at the University of Denver and FiveThirtyEight contributor): We’re seeing a pretty consistent story across a lot of different polls where there isn’t that much difference between Democrats and Republicans. However, I did want to mention a recent survey conducted by Montana State University-Bozeman and the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver, as it found that even though a majority of Democrats, Republicans and independents in Colorado support the state’s stay-at-home orders, there are fairly stark differences in enthusiasm for the orders. Seventy-four percent of Democrats say they strongly support the orders compared with 45 percent of Republicans, for instance. That said, actual opposition to the orders is negligible across parties. And this poll also found that Democrats, Republicans and independents were equally likely to be engaging in social distancing behavior.

sarahf: One thing I’ve been struck by is that while there are some partisan differences on various social distancing measures, they’re just not that big. For instance, a National Bureau Economic Research working paper found partisan differences in self-reported social distancing behaviors and attitudes, but on something like reducing contact with others, the gap between those who identified as strong Democrats and those who identified as strong Republicans wasn’t that big. It was only a few percentage points.

In other words, despite a strong partisan split around whether President Trump is doing a good job of handling the crisis (see the chart below from our tracker on COVID-19 polls), there isn’t the same kind of dividing line on the actual preventive measures people are taking.

seth.masket: I think that’s right. And it may change!

One thing that’s been striking over the past few years is how much Republicans have largely followed Trump’s lead on a number of issues where he has broken from long-standing Republican orthodoxy — whether it’s increased support for Russian President Vladimir Putin or moral leadership mattering less. But with the coronavirus we may see a limit to this elite-led partisanship when death is on the line.

nrakich: Yeah, in this era of partisanship, we’re kind of trained to home in on the partisan differences in everything. And while they do exist here, they are just not as polar opposite as we are used to seeing — e.g., on approval and disapproval of Trump.

sarahf: Perry, you’ve covered the coronavirus-closure protests but found that the push to repeal stay-at-home orders was largely out of line with rank-and-file Republicans. Is that still true? Or are we starting to see that shift?

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): The polling hasn’t really shifted that much amid the protests — as Seth and Nathaniel have said, rank-and-file Republicans aren’t in revolt against these social distancing measures. They do tend to worry (more than Democrats), though, that these measures might go too far and hurt the economy.

nrakich: That’s true, but I’d still keep an eye out for shifts. I think the protests are less likely to move Republican opinion than are a bunch of Republican governors telling people it’s time to open up. And that has just started to happen within the past week. Plus, Republican elites may speak out even more in favor of opening up, or opening up further, in the weeks to come.

sarahf: That’s a good point, Nathaniel. Something you looked at for FiveThirtyEight, Seth, was whether a governor’s party affiliation made a difference in when he or she issued a statewide order to stay at home, but you found there really wasn’t a partisan difference. True, at the time you wrote the article last month, the eight governors who hadn’t issued such an order were all Republicans, but putting that aside, the median Democratic and Republican governor took roughly the same amount of time to act — 21 days after the first COVID-19 case was reported for Democratic governors, and 25 days for Republicans.

Is it a similar situation now, Seth, where partisanship doesn’t play as much a role in when a governor reopens a state? Or is that no longer true?

seth.masket: It seems to be different with reopening. According to The New York Times, 29 states are starting to reopen, and 22 of them have Republican governors. And of the 21 states — plus Washington, D.C. — that are keeping their stay-at-home orders in place, 18 (including D.C.) are led by Democrats.

And what I’ve found is that the party of the governor (or the state’s vote in 2016) does a much better job explaining the lifting of stay-at-home orders than either the incidence of the illness or the death count in a given state.

sarahf: Of course, there’s a lot we don’t know about the actual prevalence of the disease, given the differences in testing strategies from state to state. But that’s interesting that the death count isn’t predictive for whether a state might reopen.

perry: Are there more states with high incidence rates/high death totals opening up? Or do we see more states with lower incidence rates and death totals staying closed?

seth.masket: It’s a mixture of both. On the one hand, you have states like Rhode Island and Pennsylvania, which have current caseloads of 9,401 and 4,137 cases per million residents, respectively, and they’re loosening up stay-at-home rules. A state like Illinois, however, which has a caseload similar to Pennsylvania’s, is keeping its orders intact for now.

And on the other hand, Hawaii and Oregon have very low caseloads (fewer than 1,000 per million residents), but they’re keeping restrictions in place.

One governor I’ve followed with some curiosity is my own, Colorado’s Jared Polis, who is a fairly liberal Democrat and yet has embraced a modest reopening. I don’t claim to have a great sense of why he’s pressing this, unlike most other Democratic governors. But he’s clearly faced some pushback to stay-at-home orders.

We haven’t seen many large demonstrations against these orders, but Weld County (a large rural county stretching from Denver’s northern suburbs to the Wyoming and Nebraska borders) has strongly resisted the orders over the past few weeks and has pushed to reopen. And although Polis threatened to withhold relief funds at one point, I assume he has grown increasingly concerned that he will be unable to compel some areas of the state to comply. After all, this was the county that led a state-secession movement seven years ago.

nrakich: Right, I think a lot of people have mentally filed Colorado away as a blue state now because it has a Democratic governor and has so many college-educated white voters, but there is a healthy tradition of conservative/libertarian activism there.

Polis also wasn’t that liberal as a U.S. representative. I always thought of him as a technocrat/business-friendly Democrat, and I’m sure a lot of business associations are eager to reopen.

sarahf: Something we have to remember in this conversation, though, is that when we say “reopen,” that applies to a wide range of scenarios. In Texas, for instance, Gov. Greg Abbott is reopening the state in phases. In the first phase, only some nonessential businesses will reopen, and he’s also taken additional steps like limiting the capacity of restaurants and some businesses to 25 percent. In other words, no state that’s reopened has returned to operating as they did before the pandemic.

perry: Seth, what about the states in the South that are reopening? Are they generally doing that somewhat in proportion to deaths in their state or the number of cases?

seth.masket: Perry, within the South, there is a modest relationship there — states where the cases per million residents and deaths per million residents are higher are less likely to be reopening now. Louisiana by far has the highest caseload per capita, but it’s keeping its restrictions in place.

nrakich: Also one of the only Southern states with a Democratic governor — albeit a conservative one.

seth.masket: Virginia is another example.

sarahf: It’s interesting to me that the question of when to reopen the government has such a strong partisan undertone to it. On the one hand, the end of April/early May is when many Americans thought businesses and parts of the economy might reopen, so it’s possible that people start to answer questions on preventive measures differently — and not just for partisan reasons.

On the other hand, Trump has been pushing to reopen the economy in subtle — and not so subtle ways — and that obviously plays a role here, but there are also a lot of reasons why a governor might want to reopen the economy that isn’t strictly for partisan reasons.

So where do we think this debate over whether to open the economy heads next? Is it going to make the coronavirus an increasingly politicized issue?

seth.masket: I’m wondering which way we’ll see Republican voters moving in the next few weeks/months. What we’re seeing right now, I think, is one of the bigger elite-voter divides within a party in recent history. Trump isn’t wrong to see his political fate tied up with the fate of the economy. It’s probably why he keeps encouraging the country to reopen. And he’s made it clear he wants governors to reopen their states too. Republican governors mostly have (although Trump pushed back at Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp). Yet voters, even those supportive of Trump, are wary of jumping back into old routines.

So we might see an increase in this intra-party divide over the next few weeks, as GOP governors continue to push to reopen while disease rates ramp up in their states. As more people get sick or know people who are sick, that really undermines elites’ rhetoric that the worst is behind us, probably more than aggregate numbers do.

sarahf: I suppose that’s what makes all this so difficult — we don’t know what effect reopening parts of the economy in certain states might have. Some states might see an uptick in cases as a result, but that also might not happen, because even though parts of the economy are reopening, it doesn’t mean people will be ready to jump back into their old routines as you say, Seth. Many people will still avoid restaurants or other public spaces if they are concerned and have the ability to do so.

seth.masket: I’m not ready to go clubbing again just yet. Of course, I largely stopped in the early ’90s.

sarahf: Ha, and I think you’re not alone! No matter what Gov. Polis reopens.

But, OK, so far the most partisan aspects of the coronavirus crisis have been around how Americans approve (or disapprove) of Trump’s handling of it and how much they trust various government institutions with handling the pandemic. But where does this head next? Polls show Republicans and Democrats are largely taking preventive measures in roughly equal measures (although maybe not as enthusiastically), but does that change as states reopen? In other words, if political leaders are eager to engage in a political blame game around the virus, is the pandemic going to be increasingly politicized?

perry: The reaction to the pandemic is already very partisan because the anti-social distancing/stay-at-home orders movement is almost entirely driven by Republicans, from the protesters themselves to Attorney General William Barr and the president. (So even though most Republicans are not anti-social distancing, most prominent anti-social distancing voices are Republicans.)

The effect of that elite conservative pressure will be to make stay-at-home orders/social distancing almost impossible to sustain, because there will be lawsuits, protests, etc., no matter what the public thinks. We had relative national consensus around social distancing from the end of March until late April — but that’s over, I think. Even if we have a spike in the number of cases, Republican elites are probably going to put a lot of pressure on state governments not to reimpose these orders.

seth.masket: What we’re seeing, I’d argue, is a kind of perversion of the concept of states being the “laboratory for democracy.” In the absence of national leadership, we see state governments trying to figure out the path forward, but we don’t yet have a great sense of how they’re balancing things like the politics of it, disease rates, and other considerations, like the economy and what experts recommend.

It’ll also be hard to understand the effect that lifting some of these measures will have, as the spread of the disease will be only partially affected by these policies. States have very porous borders and integrated economies. So some states will do “well” or “poorly,” and blame and credit will be passed around — but not necessarily appropriately. Not to mention that in the past few months, Trump has moved the goal post quite a bit on how many deaths we should expect, so governors will likely follow suit, making it even harder to assess the impact.

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Sarah Frostenson is FiveThirtyEight’s former politics editor.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Seth Masket is a professor of political science and director of the Center on American Politics at the University of Denver. He is the author of the book “Learning From Loss: The Democrats 2016-2020.”