By Brad Heath
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans who now find themselves politically divided over seemingly everything are now forming two very different views of another major issue: the dangers of the new coronavirus.
Democrats are about twice as likely as Republicans to say the coronavirus poses an imminent threat to the United States, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted this week.
And more Democrats than Republicans say they are taking steps to be prepared, including washing their hands more often or limiting their travel plans.
Poll respondents who described themselves as Republicans and did not see the coronavirus as a threat said it still felt remote because cases had not been detected close to home and their friends and neighbors did not seem to be worried, either.
“I haven’t changed a single thing,” Cindi Hogue, who lives outside Little Rock, Arkansas, told Reuters. “It’s not a reality to me yet. It hasn’t become a threat enough yet in my world.”
Many of the U.S. cases that have been reported so far have been in Washington state and California, more than 1,000 miles away from Arkansas.
Politics was not a factor in her view of the seriousness of the virus, Hogue said. Other Republican respondents interviewed echoed that sentiment.
But the political divide is nonetheless significant: About four of every 10 Democrats said they thought the new coronavirus poses an imminent threat, compared to about two of every 10 Republicans.
Part of the explanation, said Robert Talisse, a Vanderbilt University philosophy professor who studies political polarization, is that political divisiveness often works in subtle ways.
Americans increasingly surround themselves with people who share the same political views, so partisan perceptions echo not just through the television channels people watch and websites and social media they consume, but through their friends and neighbors, too.
“This partisan-sort stuff is real; it just doesn’t feel like that’s what’s going on because our partisan selves just feel like ourselves,” Talisse said.
A `FALSE NUMBER’
Americans, who often consume news based on their political preferences, have received two different views of the virus’s potential impact.
Amid tumbling stock markets, President Donald Trump has sought to portray himself as on top of the health crisis, but he has been criticized for being overly optimistic about its potential impact and for sometimes incorrect statements on the science of the virus.
Trump has accused the media and his political adversaries of trying to derail his re-election campaign by amping up alarm over the dangers posed by the virus. He has largely sought to cast it as a comparatively minor threat, comparing its risk to the less deadly seasonal flu.
Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh told listeners last week that, “The coronavirus is the common cold” and was merely being “weaponized as yet another element to bring down Donald Trump.”
Trump told Sean Hannity’s Fox News show on Wednesday that he thought World Health Organization estimates of the virus’ death rate were a “false number,” that he had a hunch the rate was much lower, “a fraction of 1 percent.” The WHO said this week that the coronavirus killed about 3.4% of the people who contracted it worldwide.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi accused Trump on Thursday of spreading misinformation about coronavirus’ death rate, saying the “reality is in the public domain.”
The outbreak has killed more than 3,400 people and spread across more than 90 nations. Eleven people in the United States have died from the coronavirus, the CDC said Friday.
National media and other cable news channels have been filled with accounts of a spreading sickness and the U.S. deaths. Public health authorities have sent increasingly urgent warnings about the need to be ready for quarantines and school closures.
Exactly how big a role these divergent messages have driven Americans’ perception of the danger they face is difficult to measure, but experts said they could only fuel the political divisions that are so vast that they long ago started having an impact on everything from how Americans vote to where they buy coffee.
“Our hyper-polarization is so strong that we don’t even assess a potential health crisis in the same way. And so it impedes our ability to address it,” said Jennifer McCoy, a Georgia State political science professor who studies polarization.
About half of Democrats said they are washing their hands more often now because of the virus, compared to about four in 10 Republicans, according to the poll. About 8% of Democrats said they had changed their travel plans, compared to about 3% of Republicans.
More than half of Republicans, about 54%, said they had not altered their daily routines because of the virus, compared to about 40% of Democrats.
The Reuters/Ipsos poll was conducted online, in English, from March 2-3 in the United States. It gathered responses from 1,115 American adults, including 527 Democrats and 396 Republicans. The poll has a credibility interval, a measure of precision, of about 3 percentage points.
(Reporting by Brad Heath; additional reporting by Chris Kahn, Julie Steenhuysen and John Whitesides,; Editing by Ross Colvin and Alistair Bell)