Americans Are Not as Divided About the Pandemic as It Seems

On Trump? Yes. On measures to mitigate the pandemic and keep people safe, we're much closer.

As COVID-19 ravages varied regions of the United States at different levels of intensity, news reports have repeatedly shown an ideological split in public opinion over how President Trump is handling this pandemic.

While polling data shows that fewer than of half of all Americans approve of the job he’s doing, data suggests that the president is maintaining considerable support from his base. And, while some conservative governors are already opening their states, Trump continues to tweet suggesting that his supporters in predominantly liberal states protest to open these states. 

These narratives are factually true but largely incomplete. They collectively do a real disservice because they create not only a genuine misunderstanding of America’s pulse during the pandemic but also suggest a level of ideological polarization that does not exist between liberal and conservative Americans when it comes to COVID-19. 

A more complete narrative is critical. Data from the Pew Research Center collected during the epidemic reveals that Americans are indeed polarized around Trump and his behavior but are not deeply divided when it comes to real, concrete safety measures to mitigate the virus and protect Americans. 

Pew data shows that more than 80 percent of Americans who identify as conservative or very conservative approve of how Donald Trump is handling his job in general. When moderates are considered, the figure drops appreciably to 39 percent, and the figure continues to decline for liberals at 10 percent and only 6 percent for those very liberal.

When looking at managing the pandemic specifically, we still see a general trend of ideological divergence: 56 percent of those who are very conservative and 48 percent of those who are conservative think that he is doing an excellent job at managing the outbreak. In stark contrast, only 14 percent of moderates feel the same way and just 3 percent of liberal and very liberal identifiers believe that President Trump is doing an excellent job managing this pandemic. 

But let’s look at what the Pew data reveals when direct questions are asked about coronavirus, nuance is considered, and Trump and his cult of personality are removed. 

Take for instance, the question of whether or not coronavirus presents a “significant crisis.” When Americans are asked if the outbreak is a significant crisis compared to less salient categories such as a “serious problem but not a crisis” or a “minor problem,” 79 percent of liberal identifiers call it “significant.” While there is some ideological divide—68 percent of moderates and 58 percent of conservatives also categorized it as significant—some of these differences can be explained by the fact that East Coast urban areas have been hit harder than places in the Plains or the South and the chatter in those areas is that the states are not in full blown crisis mode compared to New York City. If the second response to the crisis question is included—that COVID-19 is a serious problem but not a crisis—the numbers show that virtually everyone is in agreement that it is a real issue: 97 percent of liberals, 96 percent of moderates, and 93 percent of conservatives are very concerned but not claiming that everything is in crisis. Such sensitivity is critical to identify a full and complete narrative. 

Similarly, Pew asks about approval of state and local officials in terms of managing the problem. Here, 67 percent of liberals and 73 percent of conservatives believe that their state and local officials are doing an excellent or good job. As for public health officials, 73 percent of liberals and 84 percent of conservatives are pleased with how these institutions and officials have managed the pandemic and even with these differences in approval, both liberals and conservatives are overwhelmingly supportive of other public entities compared with Trump. 

There is even more agreement among liberals and conservatives when Donald Trump is not in the picture. For example, Pew asks about real direct consequences of the coronavirus threat in terms of one’s personal health. Here there is considerable parity, as 36 percent of liberals see this as a major health threat compared to 31 percent of conservatives. Likewise, 49 percent of liberals and 41 percent of conservatives see it as a major threat to their personal financial situation. More equivalence that goes unreported.

Finally, Pew has a battery of questions which ask Americans to consider some steps that have been announced to address the Coronavirus outbreak and queries if the respondents think particular actions have been necessary or unnecessary to manage this crisis. Again, without Trump in the picture, there is remarkable ideological similarity. 

International travel restrictions have been highly political in the past few years, but in this case, 93 percent of liberals and 96 percent of conservatives are supportive. Nearly all liberals—in the range of 95 percent—support canceling entertainment, sporting events and school. For conservatives, the percentage in favor is in the mid-to-high 80s.

Americans are deeply polarized when it comes to their views about the president and how he is behaving, and it’s no secret that the president himself stokes this divide when it’s politically convenient. But conservatives are anything but an out of touch and out of step group when it comes to attitudes on how to ease the impact of coronavirus on the country. Narratives that suggest otherwise lack appropriate context and are simply irresponsible. Donald Trump and the media may want to play into the real political divides in the country as such a negative strategy generates more interest, but the data shows that neither liberal nor conservative Americans are interested in playing politics with a pandemic.

Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.

Photograph of a child drawing a hopeful message in chalk on her driveway in West Islip, New York, by Thomas A. Ferrara/Newsday RM via Getty Images.