Fear Factor: What Our Virus Concerns Say about the Two Parties

May 6, 2020

Nobody is thrilled to be stuck inside, but a lot of pollsters have been surprised by just how popular The Great Lockdown has been. Despite the state protests and rallies, there's been a lot of support for the stay-at-home orders that have canceled schools and disrupted life as we know it. "Worth it" said 80 percent in a Kaiser survey last week. "Appropriate" another 66 percent told the Washington Post. But is that mindset starting to change? Some surveys say yes.

For the first time since he's been asking, Scott Rasmussen thinks the focus of concern is changing. A slight plurality of people -- 49 percent -- said they now fear the economic threat more than the health threat (45 percent). In statistics, that's essentially a split down the middle, he told me on "Washington Watch." "But it's a big change from a month ago, when 55 percent were more worried about the health components of the coronavirus." But the longer this goes on, Scott explained, the more Americans are starting to count the other costs. "It's not just, you know, stay home and stay safe, or go out and work and put your health at risk."

One of the more interesting findings of his survey is just how differently the two parties respond. There's a significant divide over which concern should take precedence. By a 73-21 percent margin, Republicans say the economic threat is more serious -- while Democrats, 64 to 31 percent, worry more about health. Of course, that's consistent, in a lot of ways with the two political philosophies. "The Republican base, by and large, is going to be far more suspicious of the media culture, and of the government, and of government's efforts to take liberty away from them," the Hill's John Feehery speculates. And as the president pushes to reopen the economy, Republicans -- who've been concerned about this issue from the start -- are naturally going to rally behind him.

But there are also two competing political philosophies at work here. Republicans have always been more attached to the free market than government. And Democrats, on the opposite side, tend to find comfort in more government and this idea that it can provide and protect. "It's almost," Scott agreed, "a broader definition of civil society. Conservatives tend to think there is a very active role for churches and trade associations and small businesses making things work, as opposed to a top-down mindset of the government should set the rules and we all play by them. So that absolutely factors into these numbers."

We talk about these things as absolutes, Scott pointed out, but there are a lot of moving parts. The timing aspect is important. The infection rate is important. Freedom is important. The fact is, life, however it resumes, will look differently. But the president and his team are doing the best they can to make sure nothing has to suffer more than it already has -- not our health and not the economy.