Researchers say political beliefs are shaping major behavioral differences related to the coronavirus pandemic 

public health official
A new survey shows differences in perception between people who approve and disapprove of President Trump’s performance during the pandemic.

President Trump’s supporters and opponents are increasingly at odds over the coronavirus pandemic, according to a new survey led by researchers from Rutgers University-New Brunswick and University of California-Berkeley.

The findings, published by the Institute of Governmental Studies, found that, in April, 37 percent of people who approve of the president’s performance saw COVID-19 as a major threat to their personal and family’s health compared with 58 percent of people who disapprove of the job the president was doing. By July, the gap had widened to 34 percent of Trump supporters considering COVID-19 to be a danger compared to 65 percent of Trump disapprovers. 

Similarly, with beliefs about face masks’ efficacy, the gap also widened. In April, 37 percent of Trump supporters considered face masks to be extremely effective for prevention compared to 45 percent of Trump disapprovers. By July, 38 percent of Trump supporters believed face masks to be extremely effective compared with 77 percent of those who disapprove of Trump. 

“The data helps underscore how differences in perception have grown over time, leading to very different behaviors with respect to the pandemic,” said study author Hana Shepherd, an assistant professor of sociology at Rutgers.

The study compared data from California voters who approve of the president’s performance versus those who disapprove of the president’s performance. The former group is less likely to trust health officials about COVID-19, believe the pandemic is a threat or believe staying home and wearing masks are effective ways to keep safe.

The researchers suggest efforts to communicate with conservatives about mask-wearing and social distancing should be tailored to their political beliefs. For instance, Shepherd said, using language about how these measures preserve “freedom” or include certain political metaphors and symbols like the American flag might help the messaging resonate with these groups.

Who the message comes from is also a critical factor, says co-author Norah MacKendrick, an associate professor of sociology.

“Information from public health officials—especially from federal or state agencies—is not going to be well-received among those with conservative political beliefs,” MacKendrick said. “It’s up to those who support Trump publicly but also recognize the importance of public health measures to lead these public health campaigns. Former Gov. Chris Christie’s recent opinion piece on wearing a mask is a good example of this.” 

The researchers worked with the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC Berkeley to ask a representative sample of more than 8,800 registered California voters in April and 8,328 in July about their attitudes toward the pandemic and public health institutions, and about their behaviors related to the pandemic.