Jul 25, 2020 - Politics & Policy

The president's pandemic cues

Data: Axios/Ipsos polling; Chart: Danielle Alberti

Data: Axios/Ipsos polling; Chart: Danielle Alberti

President Trump's words and actions have shaped Republicans' perceptions and behavior on everything from wearing face masks to worrying about economic collapse, in an analysis of our Axios-Ipsos Coronavirus Index since the pandemic began.

Why it matters: When Trump talks, his base listens. That carries profound implications for efforts to limit the spread in the U.S., especially when he contradicts public health officials or state and local leaders.

What they're saying: Cliff Young, president of Ipsos U.S. Public Affairs, says Trump's ability to influence supporters is "indisputable."

  • "The influence of the leader in highly partisan times is really large — it’s all about cueing," Young says. It's true for any president, no matter which party.
  • "It’s called motivated reasoning: 'I see Trump, I like him, I think whatever he says is true,' or, 'I see Trump, I don’t like him, anything he says is not true.'"
  • "Trump’s position on the economy: There’s going to be a quick recovery. Trump waffling on social distancing and the masks. That’s cueing. As Trump has been waffling on statistics, saying they’re not right, Republicans increasingly believe the problem’s overstated. He’s created doubt about the facts."

Details: The president's shifting guidance on mask use offers some of the most detailed examples of the interplay between the behaviors of Trump and his base. Consider some key events:

  • April 3: CDC recommends wearing face masks in public to slow the spread.
  • May 26: Trump mocks Joe Biden for wearing a mask to a Memorial Day event, and accuses a reporter of trying to be "politically correct" by wearing a mask at a news conference.
  • July 1: Trump tells Fox Business News that "masks are good," that people have seen him wearing one and that they make him look like the Lone Ranger.
  • July 11: Trump wears mask for first time before cameras, on a visit to Walter Reed National Medical Center
  • July 20: Trump tweets photo of himself wearing a face mask and calls it "patriotic."

In April, when we began measuring poll respondents' mask use behaviors, 38% of Democrats and 24% of Republicans said they were wearing a face mask outside the home at all times.

  • By mid-June, that had grown to 67% of Democrats but only 29% of Republicans.
  • Mask wearing ebbed a bit June as Americans felt what turned out to be a false sense of the worst being over. Then Republicans began increasing their mask use without cues from Trump, after case numbers in red states began rising.
  • But the practice among Republicans really reached new levels after Trump began promoting mask use himself — and allowed himself to be photographed wearing one. By mid-July, 45% of Republicans were saying they always wore masks outside the home.
Data: Axios/Ipsos polling; Chart: Danielle Alberti
Data: Axios/Ipsos polling; Chart: Danielle Alberti

Between the lines: The dynamic is not purely call-and-response. With masks, segments of the president's party got ahead of him, including lawmakers. That put pressure on him to shift — and when he did, more of the base came along.

  • "Is he leading public opinion or is public opinion leading him?" Young says. "There’s a little bit of a chicken-and-egg thing, but definitely what we’re seeing is a function of Trump’s messaging."
  • "But it will be interesting to see what’s going to happen to the data in the next couple weeks. He’s adjusted his tone. We’ll see. This will be a really important proof point. I think we’re going to see increased use of masks, we’re going to see a number of these behaviors and opinions shift."

The big picture: Beyond mask use, we see correlations with Republicans resuming visits with friends and family and going out to eat; their trust in the federal government (a proxy for Trump) v. state government (governors); general concern about the virus; and fears about the U.S. economy collapsing.

  • We saw Republicans and Democrats starting out in different places back in March or April in terms of perception and behavior — and then saw their disparate reactions widen over time.
  • In some cases, the trends widened even as behaviors moved in the same direction. While mask use is up across the board, the gap between Democrats and Republicans who wear them all the time outside the home widened from 14 percentage points in April, to 41.

Data: Axios/Ipsos polling; Chart: Danielle Alberti

Data: Axios/Ipsos polling; Chart: Danielle Alberti
  • In other cases, perceptions by party ID flipped. In April, Republicans feared an economic collapse more than Democrats, by a gap of four percentage points.
  • By late July, Trump's regular assurances of economic strength, and the realities of which sectors of the economy were feeling the brunt, translated to Democrats' concerns overtaking Republicans' — by a 14-point margin.

How it works: To better understand how Trump's cues impacted Republicans, we worked with Ipsos pollster Chris Jackson, plotting changing responses each week to key questions in our survey — and focusing on those questions where party ID made the biggest difference.

We then compared how closely Republicans' actions or views of the pandemic correlated to Trump's public statements and actions. Read the full timeline here.

  • These data don't measure cause and effect. But we're struck by how swiftly Republicans' took actions that mirrored the presidents or reflected his views on a series of questions when asked, from week to week.
  • Typically, the impacts weren't immediate but manifested within a week or so. That reflects the time it took for people to absorb new messaging and for pollsters to get into the field and capture those shifts.

What's next: The debate around opening schools is one to watch in the coming weeks. Trump remains insistent that schools must reopen even as several large districts around the country have said classes will be online this fall.

  • So far, there's a massive partisan gap (57 percentage points in a new Ipsos/ABC poll) in opinions about whether it's too soon.
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