How Partisanship Affects Pandemic Thinking

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This reaffirms a longstanding belief of political science, Professor Klar said: “When an issue becomes really threatening and really important to you, then partisanship weakens its grip on your decision making.”

It is, at least, a moderately reassuring thought.

“There’s often so much focus on people whose partisanship seems to surpass their care even for their own health, or care for others,” Professor Krupnikov said. “But I do think it’s important to highlight that there are, at least in our data, a lot of people for whom politics was in fact tremendously secondary to the health crisis happening around them.”

What this means practically for the future of the pandemic is less clear, especially because we don’t have much reliable polling conducted since the Delta surge spun out of control.

The limited polling we do have shows that a majority of Americans are worried about the Delta variant and support the C.D.C. recommendation that people wear masks indoors regardless of their vaccination status — and that pattern holds across regions, including the South, said Mary Snow, a polling analyst at Quinnipiac University. But there are still deep partisan divides in that data.

President Biden’s approval rating also seems to have taken some damage, but that may not be because of the surge itself. Rather, it may be “because we were told that we were out of the woods at the beginning of the summer, and that hasn’t happened,” said Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. “And that’s a reflection of messaging as much as anything else: ‘Why did you tell us you had this under control when you didn’t?’”

Ultimately, especially in the face of such a contagious variant, it takes only a small minority of Americans to derail epidemiological progress — and the most partisan Republicans are taking their cues from leaders who have no political incentive to give different ones.

In a state like Mississippi, the governor has more to fear politically from a far-right primary challenger than from a Democrat in a general election, Professor Wronski noted.