For a while now, attitudes toward the COVID-19 pandemic have been growing increasingly partisan. Republicans, for instance, have been less likely to see COVID-19 as a threat and more resistant to taking public health precautions like reducing their movement and practicing social distancing measures.
That may change, though, as the country’s long-running battle with COVID-19 hit a new inflection point on Friday when news broke that President Trump had been infected. There’s still a lot we don’t know at this point, but polls in the wake of Trump’s diagnosis and hospitalization show signs of Republicans taking the virus a little more seriously and maybe even adjusting their own behavior in response.
But political scientists who have been following public opinion over the course of the pandemic cautioned us that a lot still depends on how long Trump remains ill, whether he continues to insist that he’s recovering quickly and, perhaps most importantly, whether the Trump team starts handling the virus differently — for example, by starting to wear masks.
“Attitudes and behaviors around COVID-19 have become really concrete at this point — it will take a lot to move them in a significant, lasting way,” said Shana Gadarian, a political science professor at Syracuse University who is part of a team that has repeatedly surveyed Americans about COVID-19 since March. One big question is whether Trump will change his own behavior as a result of his experience with the virus, which could have a significant impact on how Republicans respond. [Editor’s note: After publication, Trump tweeted that he planned to leave the hospital today, telling Americans “Don’t be afraid of covid.”]
Here’s a look at what we know so far:
Americans — including some Republicans — don’t think Trump took enough precautions
At this point, we only have five polls asking Americans what they think about the president’s diagnosis and how it has (or hasn’t) affected how they think about the coronavirus, but one thing that stands out is that most Americans, including some Republicans, don’t think Trump has taken the coronavirus seriously enough.
In a Reuters/Ipsos poll, for instance, they found that 67 percent of registered voters agreed that if Trump had taken the coronavirus more seriously, he probably wouldn’t have been infected, including about 9 in 10 Democrats and half of all Republicans. Meanwhile, a Yahoo News/YouGov poll found that 52 percent of registered voters didn’t trust Trump to give accurate info about his health and his COVID-19 treatment. And Politico/Morning Consult found that 56 percent of Americans did not trust Trump to give accurate updates on his health.
This lack of trust is largely in line with other surveys we saw prior to the president’s diagnosis, as Americans have long distrusted Trump to handle the coronavirus pandemic.
There’s some evidence that Republicans might take the coronavirus more seriously
Some polls point to a small but meaningful increase in how seriously the public perceives the threat of the coronavirus, especially among Republicans. In an ABC News/Ipsos survey conducted Oct. 2-3, 37 percent of Americans said they were very concerned that they or someone they knew would become infected, and 44 percent said they were somewhat concerned. This represented a 9-point uptick in concern from the same survey in mid-September, when 29 percent said they were very concerned and 43 percent somewhat concerned. Notably, this change was driven entirely by Republicans and independents, too: 70 percent of Republicans and 82 percent of independents were concerned, up from 52 percent and 69 percent, respectively. Conversely, concern among Democrats didn’t budge.
But not every survey found as large of an increase in concern. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll in early October found 22 percent of registered voters were very worried and 39 percent somewhat worried about personally contracting the virus, almost identical to what it found in late September. And the share of voters who said they were very worried about the coronavirus was essentially unchanged in Morning Consult’s polling.
Still, some Americans may be taking the coronavirus a bit more seriously after Trump’s diagnosis, at least when it comes to broader public health measures. For instance, Politico/Morning Consult found that the share of adults who said that face masks were very effective at preventing the spread of the coronavirus increased slightly, from 56 percent in late September to 59 percent. And what’s more, 52 percent of Republicans answered this way, which marked the first time the share of Republicans had topped 50 percent since the pollster started asking about the effectiveness of masks in early March. Politico/Morning Consult’s survey also found that a majority of Americans said the news about Trump made them more likely to wear a mask in public or practice social distancing.
The share of people who view the threat of the coronavirus as somehow overblown may also be down. Axios/SurveyMonkey found that, compared to numbers from back in March, more Americans believed that news reports about the seriousness of COVID-19 are generally correct and fewer say they’re generally exaggerated.
But public opinion on how Trump’s handled the pandemic may be pretty baked in
When it came to what Americans thought about Trump’s handling of the coronavirus, there was little or no change in public opinion. Among adults, Politico/Morning Consult found Trump’s approval rating at 36 percent, slightly down from 39 percent in late September. And Reuters/Ipsos found his approval among all Americans at 41 percent, not too different from the 43 percent who approved of his response in a poll conducted just before the news of his diagnosis. Lastly, Yahoo News/YouGov found little movement among registered voters compared to its late September survey (43 percent versus 41 percent).
As you can see in our tracker on coronavirus polling, these latest polls broadly match the same poor ratings Trump had before his diagnosis became public: On Oct. 1, about 40 percent approved of his handling of the coronavirus.
It’s hard to imagine at this point that there will be a meaningful shift in public opinion on how Trump has handled the virus. On the one hand, it is somewhat good news for Trump that there aren’t signs of public opinion plummeting. But at the same time, other political leaders’ approval ratings have not moved all that much after they became infected with COVID-19, so it’s unlikely Trump sees a boost. Although Trump’s overall approval rating has ticked up somewhat.
Some experts think it’s going to take a lot to shift public opinion
It’s been less than a week since the news of Trump’s diagnosis broke, and we’re still getting mixed signals about the actual state of Trump’s health from his doctors. So it’s possible what we’re seeing in the polls now could change. But Marc Hetherington, a political scientist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has been studying public opinion around COVID-19 and the government response since the pandemic began, said that he isn’t holding his breath for a big shift in Republicans’ opinions. “It all depends on how he [Trump] handles this,” Hetherington said. “He could say, ‘Boy, I got that one wrong, we ought to be wearing masks and so forth, this is a really serious virus.’ But that’s very much not the message so far.”
Over the past few months, research by Hetherington, Gadarian and other political scientists has found that Republicans and Democrats have gotten further apart on pretty much everything having to do with COVID-19, from their personal concern that they might get sick to their support for government public health interventions like mask mandates. And as we wrote earlier this summer, Republicans have become less and less likely than Democrats to say they’re extremely concerned they will get COVID-19 and require hospitalization. Recent weekly surveys by the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group echo this finding, showing that Americans continue to be divided by party on whether it’s a good idea for states to close businesses and restrict travel in response to the pandemic.
Hetherington’s team is still in the process of publishing the third wave of their research, which was completed just before Trump’s diagnosis became public, but in an email Hetherington shared with us some preliminary findings, including that the share of Republicans who are somewhat or very concerned about COVID-19 fell from 63 percent in March to 48 percent in September. Meanwhile, Republican support for stay-at-home orders and business closures fell even more dramatically during that period.
It’s worth noting, though, that Hetherington’s team also found some startling gaps between what individuals said they were doing and their support for those government-enforced public health measures. By September, for instance, 85 percent of Republicans said they were wearing masks in public indoors “very often,” although only 71 percent supported government-imposed mask mandates (and support for stay-at-home orders and business closures was even lower).
It’s not impossible for these attitudes to reverse course, though. A study conducted in March found that the partisan divide on risk perception and health behavior did narrow after a number of conservative politicians announced they were self-quarantining after possible exposure to the virus and the White House released social distancing guidelines. And research by Hetherington suggests that Americans become more supportive of policies like mask mandates when they are more afraid that the virus could affect them personally — which could, in theory, happen as a result of Trump’s illness.
But Hetherington said he thinks it will take more than Trump becoming sick — or even being hospitalized — for us to see really big or lasting changes in Republicans’ attitudes. In part, that’s because he expected Republican views to shift over the summer, when COVID-19 cases began to spike in areas of the country where more Republicans live. That’s not what happened, though. In fact, according to his surveys, Republicans actually got less concerned about the threat of the virus during that period.
“If the attitude is [COVID-19] is just something we’ve got to tough out,’ will Trump getting the virus really change that?” Hetherington asked. More likely it will depend, he said, on just how long Trump remains hospitalized, and how his health fares over the next few weeks.