A new poll shows a startling partisan divide on the dangers of the coronavirus

A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll has revealed sharp partisan divides between Americans over the coronavirus pandemic.

The poll found 68 percent of Democrats are worried that someone in their family could catch the virus, while just 40 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of independents share that concern.

The gulf in perception over an outwardly nonpolitical issue underscores how signals from politicians and media outlets have played a critical role in shaping how seriously Americans are taking a viral outbreak that has overwhelmed health care systems and triggered mass quarantines in several countries around the world.

Nearly 80 percent of Democrats believe the worst is yet to come, but just 40 percent of Republicans and 57 percent of independents believe that. Overall, 53 percent of all voters are concerned that someone in their immediate family might contract the coronavirus, and 60 percent believe the worst is yet to come.

A President Trump and Joe Biden supporter talk before a Biden campaign rally in Kansas City, Missouri, on March 7, 2020.
Kyle Rivas/Getty Images

The poll also found 56 percent of Democrats believe their day-to-day lives will change in a major way in the future — while just 26 percent of Republicans hold that view.

In response to every question about whether a respondent would change plans that would expose them to others, like travel, eating out at restaurants, and attending large gatherings, Democratic voters consistently responded affirmatively at much higher rates than Republicans. For example, 61 percent of Democrats said they’ve stopped or plan to stop attending large public gatherings, but only 30 percent of Republicans said the same.

The partisan disconnect is not due to a lack of information among conservatives or a function of not hearing much about the outbreak in certain regions of the country. NBC reports that 99 percent of respondents said they’ve seen, heard, or read about the spread of the coronavirus and 89 percent say they’ve heard “a lot” about it — the highest percentage that one of their polls has found for a major event since 2009.

The more likely explanation is that, as with so many other issues, people with different political ideologies consume different kinds of information and take cues on how to think about events from different political figures and institutions. Given that President Donald Trump and media institutions that cater to conservative audiences, like Fox News, have been downplaying the issue from day one, it’s not surprising that Republican voters are not nearly as alarmed as Democrats.

Still, as the virus spreads and more people know someone affected, the typical partisan divides might not hold.

Coronavirus has been politicized

Ever since it has been clear that the US was at risk of a serious outbreak of the novel coronavirus, Trump has continually downplayed the risks it poses and dragged his feet on policy responses that would help contain and mitigate the spread of the virus. Reporting indicates that he has done this in part because he’s worried about the political damage that would accompany treating the situation as a full-blown crisis.

As Vox’s German Lopez has explained, Trump has underplayed what’s at stake on many occasions:

Trump himself has tweeted comparisons of Covid-19 to the common flu — which [director of the Harvard Global Health Institute Ashish] Jha describes as “really unhelpful,” because the novel coronavirus appears to be much worse. Trump also called concerns about the virus a “hoax.” He said on national television that, based on nothing more than a self-admitted “hunch,” the death rate of the disease is much lower than public health officials projected.

And Trump has rejected any accountability for the botched testing process: “I don’t take responsibility at all,” he said on Friday.

Jha described the Trump administration’s messaging so far as “deeply disturbing,” adding that it’s “left the country far less prepared than it needs to be for what is a very substantial challenge ahead.”

Trump also downplayed the issue by initially declining to get tested for it despite close contact with people who tested positive for the virus last week. He also never self-isolated despite being at risk of carrying the virus and spreading it to others (public health experts say it is possible to spread the virus even if you’re not showing symptoms).

Trump did eventually get tested days after his exposure — and on Saturday, the White House physician said the test was negative. But his behavior stood in stark contrast to Republican politicians like Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, who has self-quarantined after learning he came in contact with people who have tested positive for the coronavirus. Cruz reports he is currently showing no symptoms.

Conservative news outlets like Fox News have also promoted skepticism of the seriousness of the coronavirus as a serious health hazard as part of an effort to shield the Trump administration from criticism. Here are just a few examples, via progressive watchdog Media Matters:

– Fox prime-time host Sean Hannity claimed people are faking concern about coronavirus just to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.”

– On her Saturday night show, Fox host Jeanine Pirro downplayed the possibility that the coronavirus is more deadly than the flu, arguing that “that’s only because there’s a flu vaccine” and if not for the vaccine, “the flu would be a pandemic.” Pirro somehow drew the conclusion that this means that “the talk about coronavirus being so much more deadly [than the flu] doesn’t reflect reality.”

– Fox host Pete Hegseth downplayed the impact of coronavirus: “I feel like the more I learn about this, the less there is to worry about.”

– On Hannity, Fox News medical correspondent Marc Siegel said that the “worst case scenario” with coronavirus is that “it could be the flu.”

Other prominent right-wing commentators like radio personality Rush Limbaugh have painted coronavirus fears as a ploy to stop Trump rallies.

Messaging from Trump and hard-right news outlets like Fox News has diverged from the consensus among scientists and public health experts around the world who have indicated coronavirus is a serious health hazard that could easily overwhelm the US health care system and kill millions of Americans if not taken seriously by the federal government.

While mainstream and liberal media outlets have focused on pleas from the public health and scientific communities about the serious risks posed by the coronavirus, some conservative outlets and the Trump administration have gone the opposite way. And that in turn has led to a gap between liberals and conservatives on how seriously to take it.

Experts say that by the time everyone takes it seriously, it may be too late to mitigate risks.