Republicans still skeptical of COVID-19 lethality

Journalism / Article

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The novel coronavirus pandemic provides a view into the deep partisan divisions that have persisted despite the unfolding national crisis. Two recent Gallup/Knight Foundation surveys find Americans’ understanding about the coronavirus is strongly shaped by partisan affiliation and news consumption habits, especially when basic facts are politicized.

Specifically, while Democrats and independents increasingly see COVID-19 as more deadly than the seasonal flu, Republicans’ views have not changed. And while Democrats tend to think the death toll from COVID-19 is understated, Republicans believe it is exaggerated.

The surveys were fielded March 17-29 and April 14-20, 2020, as part of Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy initiative.

Republicans No More Likely Now to See COVID-19 as Deadlier Than Flu

There have been growing concerns over Americans getting false information about the coronavirus, especially as it relates to personal and public health. Generally, the Gallup/Knight surveys find that Americans are quite knowledgeable about coronavirus facts.

For instance, 88% of Americans know the coronavirus can be spread by touching surfaces where virus droplets land and that the droplets can remain contagious for a few hours or up to several days. There is no difference in awareness about how the coronavirus spreads between Democrats (88%), Republicans (87%) and independents (87%), likely because this information has remained outside contentious political discourse.

Yet, consensus on the basic facts crumbles when scientific knowledge is politicized. The gap in misperceptions over the lethality of the coronavirus is a case in point. While more Americans realized the coronavirus was deadlier than the seasonal flu in mid-April (67%) compared with late March (60%), this trend toward greater knowledge did not hold among Republicans.

Beyond partisan affiliation and political ideology, news diet is a powerful predictor of how Americans view the lethality of the coronavirus. For example, the likelihood that a hypothetical politically moderate independent with a conservative news diet would incorrectly answer this question increased four percentage points between mid-March to mid-April, compared with decreases of seven points for the same individual with a mixed news diet and 19 points with a liberal news diet. For more information on how Gallup categorizes news diets, see the online appendix (PDF download).

Two possible explanations exist for this enduring misperception. First, Republican respondents may know the correct answer but provide the incorrect answer to demonstrate their support for the Trump administration or because they just tend to view national conditions more positively when a Republican is president. In survey research, this is called expressive responding or partisan cheerleading. The other explanation is that debunking misinformation is difficult once believed. The results captured in these Gallup/Knight surveys cannot distinguish between the two possibilities, but the implication of either explanation underscores the power of partisanship and politics even as the public health emergency has unfolded.

Partisans Diverge on Accuracy of COVID-19 Death Count

Concerns about insufficient coronavirus testing, as well as differing reporting procedures by state and local authorities, have raised questions about the accuracy of the official death count. Recent reports suggest that a surge in deaths not directly linked to COVID-19 — many involving people who died at home without ever going to a hospital for treatment — could in fact have been caused by the coronavirus.

Overall, 48% of U.S. adults think the official death count is understated, while 26% believe it is overstated and 25% believe it is accurate.

Republicans are 10 times as likely as Democrats to say the death count is overstated (50% vs. 5%, respectively). Thirty percent of independents say the same. Most Democrats, 72%, believe the death count is understated.

Like beliefs about the lethality of the coronavirus, news diet is a strong predictor of one’s views on the accuracy of the official death count. For example, if a hypothetical politically moderate independent had a conservative news diet, the likelihood they would say the death count is overstated is 42%. If the same individual had a liberal news diet, the likelihood would be 12%. It would be 18% if the person had a mixed news diet.

The relationship between news diet and public opinion on this official government statistic makes sense after a review of the messages carried on different news outlets in early April. While the New York Times and Washington Post published lead stories on how the official death count is understated, Fox News aired segments suggesting this figure is likely inflated. In recent testimony to the U.S. Senate, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, confirmed that the death rate is almost certainly higher than the official count. Such differences suggest the coverage by different news outlets shapes the way Americans understand basic facts about the coronavirus.


The consequences of engaging in partisan battles over coronavirus-related issues are high because Americans appear primed to engage in partisan-motivated reasoning. Fortunately, a remedy is available. Political leaders and news organizations can push back against false information that poses health risks to Americans’ lives. Yet, given the extent of polarization in the country, not any messenger will do. Research shows that only messengers — like politicians and popular news outlets — deemed credible by their audiences are well equipped to debunk misinformation and that the message must be clear, consistent and unequivocal.