A turning point? Americans grapple with COVID-19 amid enduring partisan and racial divisions

Findings from the November 2020 American Perspectives Survey

December 9, 2020 | Daniel A. Cox, Karlyn Bowman

The 2020 Election Aftermath

Despite Joe Biden’s large popular vote victory and decisive electoral college win, Donald Trump nonetheless substantially increased his total vote share in 2020, perhaps most notably among nonwhite voters. Trump’s advantage may be due to his personality and leadership style that appealed to more traditionally masculine voters. Voters who identified as more masculine supported Trump in much larger numbers, a pattern that was evident across racial and ethnic lines.

When and How Americans Voted

Consistent with past elections, this year most Americans decided on their candidate before the general election campaign. More than two-thirds of voters decided how they were going to vote before the summer. Fifteen percent of voters made up their minds over the summer, while a similar number (18 percent) decided in the final two months.

Republicans report having made up their minds earlier than Democrats did about their voting intention. Seventy-eight percent of Republicans, compared to 69 percent of Democrats, knew how they were going to vote before the summer. This discrepancy is likely due to the Democratic primary not concluding until June 6, 2020, when Joe Biden formally won the nomination.  

Late-Deciding Hispanic Voters

For the most part, voting decisions were made early, but some groups stand out for their delayed decision-making. More than one in four (27 percent) Hispanic voters did not decide how they would cast their ballot until the fall, and more than one in 10 made their voting decision within a week of Election Day. In contrast, only about one in six white voters (16 percent) and black voters (16 percent) made their voting decision this late.

Conversely, white and black voters were more likely to have made their voting decisions before the summer. Roughly seven in 10 white (71 percent) and black (68 percent) voters knew how they would be voting earlier than the summer. In contrast, only 58 percent of Hispanic voters had already made up their minds about how they would be voting at this point in time.

Late-deciding voters did not break decisively for either candidate. Rather, Biden held a modest but significant lead over Donald Trump among voters who decided within the last week (51 percent vs. 42 percent). Notably, among voters who made up their minds over the summer about how to vote, Biden had a massive advantage over Trump (68 percent vs. 30 percent).

Because of the health threat COVID-19 posed, many states expanded or introduced early voting and vote by mail. Many Americans took advantage of these opportunities. Nearly half the voting public reported casting a vote by mail or absentee. Roughly one-quarter (27 percent) voted in person but did so before Election Day. Only one in four voters say they cast their ballot in person on Election Day.

Masculinity, Femininity, and Vote Choice

Much has been made of Trump’s unique appeal to men who hold with traditional notions of masculinity. To better understand Trump’s appeal among Americans with traditional conceptions of masculine and feminine identity, the survey included a measure allowing respondents to rate how masculine or feminine they viewed themselves.

On a seven-point scale, ranging from “completely masculine” to “completely feminine,” most men and women view themselves as traditional. The majority of men (56 percent) identify as completely masculine, while a similar percentage of women (55 percent) say they are completely feminine.

There are important differences in self-perceptions of masculinity and femininity across racial and ethnic groups. Black and Hispanic men are significantly more likely than white, non-Hispanic men are to identify as completely masculine. Roughly seven in 10 black (71 percent) and Hispanic (70 percent) men say they are completely masculine.[1] Slightly more than half (54 percent) of white men also say they are completely masculine. Similar gaps are evident among women. Close to seven in 10 (69 percent) black women and nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) Hispanic women say they are completely feminine, while less than half (49 percent) of white women say the same.

In the 2020 election, Donald Trump performed only modestly better among male than female voters. More than half (51 percent) of male voters supported Trump, compared to 44 percent of female voters. However, Trump fared far better among male voters who viewed themselves as completely masculine.

Sixty percent of male voters who identify as completely masculine supported Trump in the 2020 election, compared to 40 percent of men who identified as less traditionally masculine or who identified as neither masculine nor feminine. Biden fared much better among men who identified as less masculine or rejected masculine and feminine identify; 58 percent voted for Biden.

There is a gap among women as well. Nearly half (49 percent) of female voters who say they are completely feminine cast a ballot for Trump, compared to 37 percent of women who view themselves as less than completely feminine or as neither feminine nor masculine.

Even controlling for basic demographic attributes, such as age, education, race and ethnicity, region, and partisan affiliation, self-reported masculine identity strongly predicts preference for Trump in the 2020 election. Men who identify as completely masculine have a much higher probability of voting for Trump than do men who identify as less masculine, feminine, or do not identify as either masculine or feminine. Men who identify as most masculine have a 55 percent probability of supporting Trump, while men who identify as less masculine or as neither masculine nor feminine have a 35 percent probability.[2]

Measuring Shy Trump Voters

Americans are divided over how comfortable they feel about sharing their voting intention with people they know. About half (49 percent) the public say they are generally comfortable telling people how they plan on voting, while as many (49 percent) are not comfortable sharing this information with others.

Americans do not appear any less comfortable telling people how they actually voted than they are of sharing their voting intention. Half (50 percent) of Americans say they would be uncomfortable telling people how they voted, while 49 percent say this would not bother them.

Although theories about “shy Trump voters” have received much attention, in the current survey, there is no evidence that Trump voters are disproportionately less willing to broadcast their voting decision. Half of Biden supporters and slightly more than half (54 percent) of Trump supporters say they would be uncomfortable telling people how they would vote in an election.

There are pronounced differences in feelings of comfort across age groups. Older Americans appear less comfortable sharing how they plan on voting. A majority (56 percent) of seniors (age 65 or older) say they generally feel uncomfortable telling people how they plan to vote, while only 40 percent of young adults express this view.

Young men appear most at ease with sharing their voting decisions. Only 36 percent of young men say they would not be comfortable telling people who they are supporting in an election, while 45 percent of young women say this would make them uncomfortable.[3]

Despite some reticence among the public in sharing their voting preferences, most Americans report that their close friends and family members are generally aware of how they voted or whether they voted at all. Close to two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans say their close friends knew whether they voted and, if so, how they cast their ballot. More than seven in 10 (72 percent) Americans say their immediate family members were aware of who they were supporting in the 2020 election or whether they cast a ballot at all. Among Americans who are married or have a partner, 83 percent say their spouse or partner knew how they were voting or whether they voted. Significantly fewer Americans report that their neighbors were aware of how they voted; only 33 percent say their neighbors were privy to this information.

Again, there is no evidence that Trump supporters were more likely to keep their voting intentions secret from friends, family members, or even their neighbors. For instance, 44 percent of Trump voters say their neighbors knew how they were voting this year compared to 40 percent of Biden voters. And more than eight in 10 Trump voters (86 percent) and Biden voters (84 percent) report that their immediate family members were aware of who they were supporting in the 2020 election.

Although there was limited evidence of crossover voting in the 2020 election, partisans who did not support their party’s nominee were much less likely to reveal their candidate preference than were those who did. Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who supported Trump report that 87 percent of their immediate family members knew how they were voting, compared to 65 percent of those who supported Biden. Similarly, 80 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents supporting Trump say their close friends knew how they were voting, compared to 59 percent of those supporting Biden.

COVID-19 and the 2020 Election

Despite Trump’s stronger than expected showing in the 2020 election, Americans largely disapprove of his administration’s efforts to respond to the coronavirus outbreak. Six in 10 (60 percent) Americans disapprove of how the Trump administration has handled COVID-19, while 38 percent give the administration positive marks for how it has done.

Most Americans also doubt the Trump administration has a strategy for responding to the pandemic. Close to six in 10 (58 percent) Americans believe the administration does not have a strategy to respond to COVID-19, while 40 percent believe it does.

What Impact Will the 2020 Presidential Election Have?

Relatively few people believe the outcome of the 2020 election will affect their day-to-day life a great deal. However, most Americans expect it will make some difference. Roughly one in three (32 percent) Americans say the election outcome will affect their daily life a great deal. Thirty-eight percent say it will influence their daily life in some ways, while 30 percent say they expect it to make little or no difference.

Democrats more than Republicans say the outcome of the 2020 election will significantly affect their daily life. Forty-one percent of Democrats and one-third (33 percent) of Republicans say the election will influence their day-to-day life a great deal.

Black Americans are least likely to believe the outcome of the 2020 election will change much in their day-to-day lives. Only 22 percent of black Americans say the election will affect their personal lives a great deal, compared to 31 percent of white Americans and 40 percent of Hispanics. More than four in 10 (41 percent) black Americans do not expect the election to have much if any impact on their daily life.

While few Americans believe the election will result in major changes in their personal lives, most of the public believe the election will considerably affect the direction of the country. Nearly seven in 10 (69 percent) Americans say the election will influence the direction of the country a great deal. Twenty-two percent say it will have some influence of the direction of the US, while only 9 percent say it is unlikely to have much if any effect.

The Personal Fallout from Political Disagreement

In the wake of the contentious 2016 presidential election, a number of surveys found Americans reporting that political differences were putting strains in personal relationships. This year, a small but significant number of Americans report having broken off a personal relationship over political differences. About one in five (22 percent) Americans report having ceased social interactions with a friend or family because of their politics.

Democrats are much more likely than Republicans are to report engaging in social disengagement over politics. One in three (33 percent) Democrats—including 37 percent of Democratic men and 30 percent of Democratic women—report having stopped talking to a friend or family member because of political differences. In contrast, only 16 percent of Republicans report that they have stopped talking to a friend or family member because of their politics.

COVID-19 and American Life

Past surveys have revealed large partisan differences in views about COVID-19—its seriousness as a public health threat and strategies for reducing transmission. But these partisan differences extend to perceptions about how responsible the public has been in responding to the outbreak, perceptions of personal vulnerability to an infection, and willingness to get the vaccine. The economic fallout also continues to spread unevenly across society with black and Hispanic Americans reporting much greater financial hardships than white Americans.

Personal Responsibility and Vulnerability to COVID-19

As the coronavirus pandemic enters its 10th month, nearly eight in 10 (79 percent) Americans say the people in their neighborhood are doing their best to be careful and considerate of others in response to the pandemic, while 20 percent say their neighbors are being thoughtless and inconsiderate. The country is more divided about the response of Americans overall. Fifty percent of the public say Americans are being careful and considerate, while almost as many (48 percent) say they are being thoughtless or inconsiderate.

There are significant partisan differences in appraisals of how responsibly the public has responded to the pandemic. Democrats are considerably less likely than Republicans (47 percent vs. 67 percent) are to say Americans overall have been careful and considerate. There is more agreement about the response of people in their neighborhoods: 77 percent of Democrats and 85 percent of Republicans say their neighbors are being careful and considerate.

Roughly two-thirds (67 percent) say they personally know someone outside their household who has tested positive for coronavirus. Four percent say they personally have tested positive, and 5 percent say someone in their household has. As of early June, far fewer Americans reported knowing someone who tested positive for COVID-19. Less than half (42 percent) the public knew someone who had COVID-19.[4]

Perceptions of Vulnerability to COVID-19

When asked a hypothetical question about how they would fare if they contracted the virus, most Americans do not believe they would suffer a severe infection given their current health and personal background. Nearly half (48 percent) the public overall say they expect they would have a mild case. Roughly one-third (34 percent) believe it would be a moderate infection, and 16 percent say it would be severe.

Perhaps due to the differential threat, young Americans express greater confidence that they would experience only a mild infection if they contracted COVID-19. Sixty-three percent of young adults (age 18 to 29) say they would get a mild case. In stark contrast to young adults’ views, only 27 percent of those age 65 and older expect they would get a mild case.

There are large partisan differences in perceptions of vulnerability to COVID-19. Overall, Republicans are far more likely than Democrats are to believe they would suffer only a mild case if they became infected (58 percent vs. 39 percent, respectively). A majority of Democrats say they would likely experience a moderate (36 percent) or severe (22 percent) infection given their current health and personal background.

Perhaps surprisingly, there were scant differences between young and old when asked about their current health status. When asked how well the phrase “I rarely ever get sick” described them, 81 percent of young adults say the phrase described them very (36 percent) or fairly (45 percent) well. More than eight in 10 (81 percent) seniors also say the phrase describes them very (31 percent) or fairly (52 percent) well.

Vaccines for COVID-19 and the Flu

As both Pfizer and Moderna seek final approval for their newly developed vaccines, Americans are divided about their willingness to get a free vaccine approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Fifty-one percent, up from 44 percent in September, say they would take one, while 47 percent say they would not.[5]

There is a modest split between men and women in willingness to get a vaccine for COVID-19. Women are less likely than men are to say they would get the vaccine (46 percent vs. 56 percent).

There are also significant differences by race and ethnicity. Fifty-four percent of non-Hispanic whites, compared to 45 percent of Hispanic and 38 percent of black Americans, say they are willing to be vaccinated.

Democrats express greater willingness to get a vaccine than Republicans do at this point. More than six in 10 (61 percent) Democrats, compared to less than half (45 percent) of Republicans, say they would agree to be vaccinated. Thirty-eight percent of Democrats and a majority (55 percent) of Republicans say they would not be willing to get a free, FDA-approved vaccine. Notably, Republicans’ willingness to get a COVID-19 vaccine has not changed since September, while Democrats’ views have shifted dramatically. Less than half (47 percent) of Democrats in September reported they would get a vaccine.

Of those who are unwilling at this time to get a vaccine, most (59 percent) say their main concern is safety followed by concerns about effectiveness (15 percent). Sixteen percent of Americans who would not get a vaccine for COVID-19 say they did not feel a vaccine is necessary.

Here again, there are important differences in the reasons Americans give for their refusal. Women express greater concerns about safety than men do. Sixty-three percent of women who are unwilling at this time to get the vaccine express concerns about safety, compared to 54 percent of men.

Young adults, who are among the most likely to say they would not get a vaccine, are also much more likely to question whether it is necessary. Over a quarter (26 percent) of young adults who say they would not get a COVID-19 vaccine say their reasoning for refusing is because it is not necessary, compared to only 4 percent of those age 65 and older.

The Flu Vaccine

At this point, 50 percent of Americans say they have gotten the vaccine for the seasonal flu, while another 16 percent say they plan to get one. One-third (33 percent) say they have not gotten a flu vaccine and do not plan to do so.

This question reveals another yawning generational divide. Currently, only 40 percent of young adults have received the flu vaccine, while 18 percent say they plan to get it. Forty-one percent of young adults say they have no plans to get the flu vaccine. In contrast, more than three-quarters (76 percent) of seniors say they have already gotten the flu vaccine, and 8 percent say they still plan on getting it although have not yet. Only 16 percent of seniors say they do not plan to get a flu vaccine.

There are notable partisan differences as well. Democrats are more likely than Republicans are (74 percent vs. 62 percent) to say they have gotten or plan to get a flu vaccine. Nearly four in 10 (38 percent) Republicans say they are not planning on getting a vaccine for the flu, a position shared by 25 percent of Democrats.

Americans who have gotten the flu vaccine express much greater willingness to get a vaccine for COVID-19. Nearly two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans who have received the flu vaccine say they would get an FDA-approved vaccine for COVID-19. In contrast, only one in four (25 percent) of those who have not gotten and do not plan to get a flu vaccine say they would consider getting the COVID-19 vaccine.

COVID-19 and Face Masks

While wearing a mask is far from universal, a substantial number of Americans (69 percent) say they always wear one when leaving the house, and another 20 percent say they usually do. Only 6 percent say they rarely (3 percent) or never (3 percent) wear a mask.

Younger Americans are less likely to wear masks than say they always wear a mask; still, 58 percent say they do. Among seniors, three-quarters (75 percent) say they always put on a mask when they leave to go out.

Wearing masks is much more common among Democrats than Republicans. More than eight in 10 (81 percent) Democrats say they always wear a mask when leaving the house, while 55 percent of Republicans say the same.

Mask Mandates and Public Health

Although the issue of wearing a mask has become highly politicized, passing a mask mandate has strong public support. Sixty-nine percent favor one, while 30 percent do not.

There are larger partisan divisions about a national mask mandate than there are in mask usage. More than nine in 10 (93 percent) Democrats say they support passing a national mandate to require people wear a mask in public places to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Less than half (46 percent) of Republicans support such a policy.

Despite the strong support for a national mask mandate, a significant minority of Americans believe wearing a mask is more about being politically correct than it is about stopping the spread of COVID-19. Nearly three in 10 (29 percent) Americans say wearing masks is about political correctness, while 69 percent disagree.

Predictably, Democrats and Republicans differ sharply in their views. Seventy-two percent of Democrats completely disagree that wearing a mask is more about being politically correct, while 39 percent of Republicans say the same. Forty-five percent of Republicans somewhat or completely agree that wearing a mask is more about being politically correct than an important public health measure.  

Financial Repercussions of COVID-19

The coronavirus outbreak has taken a severe toll on the financial well-being of many Americans. But the economic costs are falling disproportionately on black and Hispanic households. Heading into the holiday season, both black and Hispanic Americans are going to be spending far less and making much smaller charitable donations than previous years.

Household Financial Situation

The pandemic has affected many Americans’ finances. When asked to describe their household’s financial situation, 38 percent say they are living comfortably, and another 38 percent say they are meeting their basic expenses with a little left over. Eighteen percent say they are just meeting basic expenses, and 5 percent say they do not even have enough to meet basic expenses.

There are sharp racial divisions in Americans’ personal financial situations. White Americans (44 percent) are more likely than black (20 percent) or Hispanic (25 percent) Americans are to say they are living comfortably. Conversely, black (27 percent) and Hispanic (26 percent) Americans are much more likely than white Americans are (14 percent) to say they are just able to meet their basic expenses.

Fifty-six percent say their household’s income has remained about the same since February 2020, while 17 percent say it has increased slightly or a lot. At the other end of the scale, one-quarter say it decreased. Reflecting the disproportionate impact the pandemic has had on nonwhites, 43 percent of Hispanics say their household income has decreased, compared to 25 percent of black Americans and 22 percent of white Americans. 

Overall, one-quarter (25 percent) of Americans say they have increased their savings since February, while 39 percent say their savings have been unaffected. More than one in three (35 percent) Americans say their savings have been reduced.

The racial disparity is particularly stark when it comes to household savings. Fifty-three percent of Hispanic, 44 percent of black, and 29 percent of white Americans say they have experienced a drop in their household savings since February.

Holiday Spending and Giving During a Pandemic

Nationally, close to half (45 percent) of Americans expect to spend less on holiday shopping this year compared to last. About half (48 percent) say they expect to spend about the same amount as last year, while 4 percent expect to spend more.

Again, there are stark racial disparities in expected holiday spending. Fifty-nine percent of Hispanic Americans and 50 percent of black Americans, compared to 40 percent of white Americans, say they will spend less this holiday season than they did last year.

The holiday season tends to produce an outpouring of charitable giving. However, this year, a significant number of Americans expect to reduce their charitable donations. One-third (33 percent) of Americans say they will donate less this year than last, while 59 percent expect to give the same amount to charities and other organizations this holiday season. Seven percent of Americans say they plan on giving more this holiday season.

Hispanic Americans, more than any other group, plan on reducing their charitable giving this year. Fifty-one percent of Hispanics, compared to 33 percent of black Americans and 28 percent of white Americans, expect to give less to charity this holiday season.

Notes


[1] The survey included less than 100 (N=87) black male respondents. Results should be interpreted with caution.

[2] These results represent predicted probabilities based on a logistic regression predicting Donald Trump support in the two-party vote that included demographic controls for region, age, gender, race and ethnicity, education, and party affiliation.

[3] There were not enough Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents who voted for Trump in the sample to perform an analysis of this group.

[4] Daniel A. Cox, “Hardship, Anxiety, and Optimism: Racial and Partisan Disparities in Americans’ Response to COVID-19,” Survey Center on American Life, June 16, 2020, https://www.americansurveycenter.org/research/hardship-anxiety-and-optimism-racial-and-partisan-disparities-in-americans-response-to-covid-19/.

[5] Daniel A. Cox and John Halpin, “Conspiracy Theories, Misinformation, COVID-19, and the 2020 Election,” Survey Center on American Life, October 13, 2020, https://www.americansurveycenter.org/research/conspiracy-theories-misinformation-covid-19-and-the-2020-election/.


Survey Methodology

The survey was designed and conducted by the Survey Center on American Life. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 2,016 adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. All interviews were conducted among participants of the web-enabled KnowledgePanel, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the US general population, not just the online population. Interviewing was conducted between November 13 and November 21, 2020. Interviews were conducted in Spanish and English.

Initially, participants are chosen scientifically by a random selection of telephone numbers and residential addresses. Persons in selected households are then invited by telephone or mail to participate in the web-enabled KnowledgePanel. For those who agree to participate but do not already have internet access, Ipsos provides at no cost a laptop and internet service provider connection. People who already have computers and internet service are permitted to participate using their own equipment. Panelists then receive unique log-in information for accessing surveys online and then are sent emails throughout each month inviting them to participate in research.

The final data were weighted to match the adult US population based on the following parameters: gender by age, race, education, Census region by metropolitan status, household income, language proficiency, and 2020 vote outcome. The sample weighting was accomplished using an iterative proportional fitting (IFP) process that simultaneously balances the distributions of all variables. The use of survey weights in statistical analyses ensures that the demographic characteristics of the sample closely approximate the demographic characteristics of the target population.

The margin of error for the qualified survey sample is +/– 2.8 percentage points at the 95 percent level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.6.

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