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Polling Matters
Six Emerging Conclusions: Public Opinion and COVID-19
Polling Matters

Six Emerging Conclusions: Public Opinion and COVID-19

1. Public Health Messages Heard and Being Heeded

Available survey data confirm that public health messaging associated with the COVID-19 virus is getting through. Americans are paying attention, and the public is generally taking the actions recommended by authorities.

Gallup data show that 93% of Americans are following the COVID-19 crisis very or somewhat closely, including 66% who are following it very closely. The level of close attention being paid to the virus is second highest on the list of 230 news stories Gallup has tested since 1991, behind only 9/11.

As I previously discussed, other polls show similarly high levels of attention being paid, including the fact that 99% of Americans (in a Wall Street Journal/NBC News survey) said they had read, seen or heard about the virus.

New data from the Kaiser Family Foundation (PDF Download) test Americans' knowledge of virus-related issues and show a high level of understanding. Most people can accurately answer questions about the availability of a vaccine, how people get the virus, how to avoid getting the virus, symptoms of the virus and who has the highest risk.

A Monmouth poll (PDF Download) underscores the degree to which the virus has captured the public's consciousness. Some 57% of respondents now name the virus when Americans are asked to identify the biggest concern facing their family right now, and many of the other concerns named are related to the potential impact of the virus -- including job security and unemployment, paying everyday bills, the economy and healthcare costs.

New survey data also confirm that Americans -- in many cases nearly all Americans -- are heeding public health advice.

Gallup's tracking of Americans' social distancing practices shows the public has quickly ramped up their adherence to government recommendations. The result is that about nine in 10 Americans now say they have avoided crowds and are avoiding traveling by airplane, bus, subway or train (of course, a lot of people didn't do these things before the virus either). Two thirds or more have avoided small gatherings, avoided going to public places and canceled travel plans and about six in 10 have stocked up on food or supplies.

All of these are up from just a week ago, and the dynamic upward curve in reports of engaging in these activities over just a week or so in Gallup's tracking underscores how quickly the authorities' recommendations are being heeded. Gallup's most recent data (tracked through March 22) also show significantly higher levels of avoidance activities than Kaiser Family Foundation found just a week ago.

2. No Panic

Given that public health messaging about the virus is evidently getting through to the average American, a key question becomes just how the public is processing that information and what conclusions they reach about it.

So far, concern and worry about the virus are in what I would call a mid-level range. Our latest Gallup update shows that 24% of Americans are very worried that they or someone in their family will be exposed to the coronavirus, with another 39% somewhat worried. Notably, this didn't change much between Gallup's two March readings, and despite the exponential increase of U.S. cases since last month, is up only modestly from February.

Data from the Kaiser Family Foundation survey are quite similar, showing about six in 10 Americans are very or somewhat worried that they or someone in their family will get sick because of the virus. Mirroring Gallup's trend, just 27% are very worried, up only five percentage points from Kaiser Family Foundation's February study.

A question included in the Monmouth survey shows 70% of Americans are very or somewhat concerned that they, or someone in their family, will become seriously ill from the coronavirus outbreak -- with 38% very concerned (no trend).

The key numbers here may be the percentage of Americans who classify themselves as "very" worried or "very" concerned across surveys. Those numbers, as we have seen, are in the 24% to 38% range, well below majority level.

Along these same lines, reports suggest that the majority of Americans have not seen their lives upended by the virus crisis. Gallup's survey shows that 30% say their life has been affected or disrupted a great deal, with another 36% a fair amount. This is a fairly low bar, of course, since being "affected" could be in quite mild ways. Kaiser data from a bit earlier in March asked more directly how much Americans' lives have "been disrupted by the coronavirus outbreak" and found a relatively low 16% saying "a lot," with another 24% saying "some."

Looking ahead, 36% of Americans say the situation will begin to improve within a few weeks, while a majority, 51%, say it will be a few months before it begins to improve.

3. Americans Look First to State Government and Medical Professionals.

The most recent Gallup data -- and data from other organizations -- confirm the emerging consensus that hospitals, state governments and government health agencies have the highest levels of the people's trust. The news media are at the bottom of most lists.

It's important to reiterate that state and local governments have historically been more positively evaluated by Americans than federal governments. Everything else being equal, then, we would expect that states will be more trusted than the feds. That has certainly been the case so far.

Clearly, the public remains relatively skeptical of the news media. Gallup's latest survey shows that only 44% approve of the way the media are handling the situation, the lowest rating of the nine people and entities tested. Monmouth asked about "the media reporting about the outbreak" and found 45% saying they were doing a good job.

Americans' views of President Donald Trump are significantly less favorable than their views of state officials and health agencies, but the 60% who approve of Trump's handling of the situation is in clear majority territory (Monmouth finds 50% saying Trump is doing a good job). Congress' efforts to pass a legislative stimulus package at the time of the most recent Gallup update may explain why evaluations of that body are relatively positive, with a 59% approval rating for its handling of the situation, on par with Trump.

What about Trump's image overall? Our latest Gallup update shows Trump's job approval rating returning to the 49% level we measured in January and February. Trump's approval is up modestly among independents and Democrats (and, as my colleague Jeff Jones says in his analysis, this is "highly unusual for Trump").

The latest Monmouth poll (PDF Download) has Trump's overall approval up by two points, now by a small margin at the highest in Trump's history in that poll.

Satisfaction with way things are going shows a mild uptick in the Monmouth poll, which fits with a modest rally effect scenario.

4. The Election Is on Hold

It's way too early to know what effect this crisis will have on the 2020 presidential election. Much will depend on the trajectory of Americans' perceptions of Trump. Presumed Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is essentially out of the news as the COVID-19 crisis rolls on. A glance at Biden's official presidential website shows little focus on the virus, other than one box linked to his plan for handing it.

There's not a lot of new polling on the election. The latest Monmouth poll included a head-to-head match-up between Biden and Trump, and finds Biden with a small lead, in line with previous polling. The Kaiser Family Foundation poll shows that Biden gets about as much trust as Trump for handing the crisis, maybe a little more if those with no opinion of Biden's performance are factored out.

Given that Americans have a great deal of trust in state government to handle the crisis, this would, in theory, be a good time for a governor (or big city mayor) to be running for president.

Indeed, the Democratic Party, at one point or the other, had a number of governors, former governors, mayors and former mayors running for their party's nomination -- Washington's Jay Inslee, Montana's Steve Bullock, Colorado's John Hickenlooper, New York City's Bill de Blasio and Mike Bloomberg, and Boston's Deval Patrick. Plus, former Massachusetts governor William Weld was contesting Trump for the GOP nomination for a while. New York governor Andrew Cuomo is getting a large amount of visibility, and there is inevitable speculation that he could jump into the race for the Democratic nomination (although if he follows his father's footsteps, he will decline to run).

5. Americans Still Evaluate the Situation Through a Partisan Lens

In my last update, I hypothesized that the substantial partisan gap in attitudes about the COVID-19 virus could narrow. So far, however, I see no significant sign of a diminished polarization.

Our most recent Gallup data on worry about virus exposure show a 27-point gap -- 48% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents are very or somewhat worried, compared with 75% of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents. This is essentially the same size gap we saw in Gallup data earlier in March.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to approve of U.S. hospitals, government health agencies and Congress, and, of course, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. Democrats are more positive about the news media, and the two partisan groups are equal in their (very positive) approval of their state governments.

Kaiser Family Foundation's latest poll shows a continuing partisan gap, and their conclusion is worth noting: "Across many questions, the poll finds significant partisan differences, with Democrats generally more worried about the health and economic consequences and more likely to take specific actions in response."

There may be underlying geographic reasons for the partisan gap in addition to the positioning cues given off by Trump and other Republican leaders; coastal blue states are harder hit than red states.

6. Personal Health Versus Economic Health Is the Looming Tradeoff

Crises and events like this one often follow a predictable pattern: Initial public acceptance and then increased questioning and pushback. We are beginning to see the second phase now, as questions arise about the dramatic "horizontal" strategy of putting everyone on lockdown.

Like much else in life, this can come down to a tradeoff -- in this instance, between an emphasis on slowing down the spread of the virus at all costs versus an emphasis on maintaining employment and a viable economy.

Gallup data from earlier this month showed that Americans' confidence in the economy was beginning to slide. Gallup's newer data show an overwhelming 87% of Americans say it is somewhat or very likely that the virus will cause an economic recession in the United States, including 52% who say it's very likely. Concern about the virus significantly harming one's personal financial situation is not as widespread, but 35% say this scenario is very likely, with another 32% saying it's somewhat likely.

The tradeoff between attempting to stop the virus at any cost and recognizing that the economy (and people's livelihoods) must go on at the same time is extremely challenging. Data showing Americans are vitally concerned about both sides of this equation underscore the need for informed and rational public leadership to juggle the emphasis given to these two critical national priorities.


Frank Newport, Ph.D., is a Gallup Senior Scientist. He is the author of Polling Matters: Why Leaders Must Listen to the Wisdom of the People and God Is Alive and Well. Twitter: @Frank_Newport

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