Partisan polarization and resistance to elite messages: Results from survey experiments on social distancing

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Syon P. Bhanot
Daniel J. Hopkins


Public opinion, Polarization, Elite messaging, Survey experiment, COVID-19


COVID-19 compelled government officials in the U.S. and elsewhere to institute social distancing policies, shuttering much of the economy. At a time of low trust and high polarization, Americans may only support such disruptive policies when recommended by same-party politicians. A related concern is that some may resist advice from “elite” sources such as government officials or public health experts. We test these possibilities using novel data from two online surveys with embedded experiments conducted with approximately 2,000 Pennsylvania residents each, in spring 2020 (Study 1 in April and Study 2 in May-June). We uncover partisan differences in views on several coronavirus-related policies, which grew larger between surveys. Yet overall, Study 1 respondents report strong support for social distancing policies and high trust in medical experts. Moreover, an experiment in Study 1 finds no evidence of reduced support for social distancing policies when advocated by elites, broadly defined. A second experiment in Study 2 finds no backlash for a policy described as being backed by public health experts, but a cross-party decline in support for the same policy when backed by government officials. This suggests that, in polarized times, public health experts might be better advocates for collectively beneficial public policies during public health crises than government officials.

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