“Political Beliefs affect Compliance with COVID-19 Social Distancing Orders
Saint Louis University – Department of Finance
University of Kentucky – Gatton College of Business and Economics
Date Written: April 8, 2020
Social distancing is vital to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. We use geolocation data to document that political beliefs present a significant limitation to the effectiveness of state-level social distancing orders. Residents in Republican counties are less likely to completely stay at home after a state order has been implemented relative to those in Democratic counties. We also find that Democrats are less likely to respond to a state-level order when it is issued by a Republican governor relative to one issued by a Democratic governor. These results are robust to controlling for other factors including time, geography, local COVID-19 cases and deaths, and other social distancing orders. We conclude that bipartisan support is essential to maximize the effectiveness of social distancing orders.
Potentially due to the recent increase in political polarization in the US (Boxell, Gentzkow, and Shapiro, 2020), there are concerns regarding how political beliefs would heterogeneously affect compliance with social distancing orders. For instance, a pastor from Arkansas told the Washington Post that “in your more politically conservative regions, closing is not interpreted as caring for you. It’s interpreted as liberalism, or buying into the hype.” The same report also documents that people from more liberal areas show more distrust in President Trump’s initial message and are more proactive about social distancing.1 The press has also highlighted that President Trump initially downplayed the severity of the coronavirus pandemic, suggesting that Republicans may not take social distancing orders seriously.
Next, analyzing differential responses to state policies, we find that Republican counties respond less to social distancing orders relative to Democratic counties. A one standard deviation increase in the county-level share of votes for Donald Trump in the 2016 election is associated with a 3pps lower percentage of people who stay at home after a state social distancing order relative to the average county. This finding is robust to subsample tests designed to adjust for county population and density.
Our final tests focus on whether the political affiliation of the governor announcing a state-level social distancing order affects compliance. If Republican’s lower response to social distancing orders is due to President Trump’s early dismissal of the pandemic, we may likewise find that Democrats’ response to orders may vary based on the political affiliation of who gives the order. We identify “aligned” counties as those with the same political affiliation as the governor and “misaligned” counties as those with conflicting political identities. We find that misaligned counties have a 2.9pps lower response to state policy social distancing orders relative to aligned counties. This difference is driven by misaligned democratic counties. These results suggest that the difference in compliance to social distancing orders based on partisanship is likely due to how credible residents find government officials and not an information transmission channel. Taken together, our results suggest that political polarization is a major roadblock on the path to full compliance with social distance measures. Republicans and misaligned Democrats are less likely to adhere to these orders, suggesting that bipartisan support for social distancing measures is a key factor in how quickly we can mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus.”