The Politics of COVID-19 Policy Support

By Siobhán Mitchell

Outside of our Denison bubble, COVID-19 cases hit record numbers in the United States and uncertainty for the winter looms. While the future viral health of the nation remains unknown, the upcoming presidential election offers little reassurance. Masks, social distancing, and healthcare are at the forefront of American politics and the two main candidates are starkly divided on how to react to the growing pandemic.

While President Trump continues to advocate for “reopening,” Biden assured he would endorse a national “lock down” if advised by scientists. Supporters of the two represented parties follow their candidates, creating a nation polarized on public health measures. A majority of Democrats (85%) surveyed by Pew Research Center classified the COVID-19 pandemic as a major threat to public health compared to less than half of Republicans (46%). The divide lessened in regards to concern for the impact COVID-19 on personal health, with 41% of Democrats and 34% of Republicans considering it a major threat to their personal health.

Is there a corresponding partisan divide at Denison? 127 surveyed Denison students to find if there is a partisan split on Denison community policy. Personally, I have yet to meet a single student who enjoys the social distancing and mask guidelines, but the precautions can be justified if COVID-19 is assumed to be a legitimate threat to campus safety.

Overall, Denison students generally approve of the administration’s social distancing and testing policies. Students rank feelings toward testing around 80 on a scale of 1 to 100 (1: I hate it., 100: Best testing policy ever! aka cold/negative to warm/positive) and social distancing guidelines around 70. It is unclear if students’ critiques of the policies are due to beliefs that precautions are too strict or too lenient (read about Denison’s testing approach here), but either way Denisonians looks fairly fond of the approach.

Campus is overwhelmingly in support of Joe Biden’s candidacy, which may explain the high regard for Denison’s restrictive public safety measures. There’s some support for that notion. Trump supporters view Denison’s social isolation policy less favorably on average, with a median score of 50 for social isolation policies compared to 70 for Biden supporters. Trump supporters were also more divided in feelings toward Dension policy. Biden and Trump supporters tend to hold similar favorably to Denison’s testing approach on average, but again Trump supporters appear more divided in comparison to the concentrated peak in favor of testing from Biden supporters.

Partisan differences are apparent again in regards to “exceptional thinking” toward social distancing rules. As reported by 127, the majority of respondents indicated at least one exception to the existing rules (averaging 1.4 exceptions), but exceptional thinking diverged on party lines. On average, Trump supporters made one more exception than Biden supporters, but both Democrats and Republican fell between Green Party and Libertarian respondents. Libertarian Jorgensen (if you don’t know who this is, me neither) supporters found the most exceptions to COVID-19 policy on average, and Green Party Hawkins (again, never heard of him) supporters found the least amount of exceptions on average. If you planned on writing in Kanye, I apologize for not giving the option to specify that on the survey.

Last week, 127 reported a positive correlation between the number of valid exceptions to social distancing guidelines and number of friends asked to leave campus. With more exceptions given, a higher percentage of respondents reported knowing students asked to leave. Knowing someone who was “kicked off” differs by more than 20% between Democrats and Republicans, with Republicans being more likely to know someone asked to leave. No Libertarians or Green Party supporters reported knowing anyone who was asked to leave campus.

Although Denison has remained low in COVID-19 cases and Licking County is relatively safe in comparison to other Ohio counties, that may not mean much in regards to how students view COVID-19. Pew researchers reported Democrats were much more likely to view COVID-19 as a major threat to personal health compared to their Republican peers regardless of the impact it had on their surrounding county. Overall, students’ political preferences may be more important in determining feelings about policy than Denison’s success in managing the virus.

Election day is less than a week away and the first frigid days of winter weather have yet to hit Ohio, leaving unknowns for both the nation’s political future and health. Politics and public health have collided and there is no separating them in the foreseeable future.

Siobhán Mitchell is a senior Spanish major, on the premedical track, yet taking a political science independent study. By those standards, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that she can’t decide what to eat for dinner.

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