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Exit polls suggest significant polarization about the pandemic and its economic fallout

The dichotomy between public health and the economy is a false one — but maybe not for Trump voters.

People stand in line to vote outside Bloomfield United Methodist Church on November 3, 2020, in Des Moines, Iowa.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

On the eve of Election Day, many pollsters were confident: In the battleground states where coronavirus cases were surging to unprecedented levels, former Vice President Joe Biden — ahead in polls nationwide — was poised to beat President Donald Trump. The hypothesis was that perhaps, as people saw their lives and livelihoods upended by Covid-19, as they saw friends and family get sick and die, they would look to an alternative leader.

As of Wednesday morning, it appears a different reality could emerge in at least some of those hard-hit places. While counting continues in key swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, Trump has already clinched victory in Iowa, where coronavirus cases are up 94 percent from two weeks ago, and Florida, where Covid-19 hospitalizations are among the highest in the country — and where he lost favor among older voters precisely because of the pandemic.

Meanwhile, in the very places with the greatest density of new Covid-19 infections nationwide — Utah, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Indiana — voters cast their ballots in favor of Trump, sometimes by large margins. (This is not much of a surprise, as these states were always projected to go decisively for Trump.)

Covid-19 cases per million.
Covid Exit Strategy

Again, ballot counts in several important states, like Wisconsin — where the virus has lately been spreading fast — remain outstanding, so we don’t yet know who has the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. When they are tallied, it will likely take months to understand exactly what weighed on voters’ minds this election.

But early exit polls offer clues about why some places being ravaged by Covid-19 favored Trump, who has been widely criticized for his handling of the pandemic. In short, voters seemingly saw a dichotomy between the economy and the public health response to the virus, and where they stood on that divide fell along deeply partisan lines. Republican voters overwhelmingly wanted the economy to restart — something Trump has long been advocating for — more than they wanted to see the virus controlled. They also viewed the economy as a key issue, more so than the pandemic, when deciding whom to support.

Trump positioned himself as the candidate who could reinvigorate the economy. Before the coronavirus began spreading in the US, he presided over low unemployment rates and a booming stock market. Even though that economic outlook cratered as the virus moved and states were forced into lockdowns, US Department of Commerce data on the eve of the election showed a July through September rebound — and Trump bet that boost would overshadow the economic pain of the spring and early summer.

As of Wednesday morning, it looks like he may have made the correct bet even if he ultimately loses the election.

There’s a stunning level of polarization about the pandemic and its economic fallout

Before the election, 67 percent of Americans surveyed reported being somewhat or very worried about being infected by the coronavirus — and an even greater proportion (86 percent) fretted about the virus’s effects on the economy.

These fears played out along partisan lines, according to pre-election polling data. In a Change Research analysis, Democrats were more concerned about the public health consequences of the pandemic — despite suffering more financial hardship — and Republicans were more concerned about the virus’s economic consequences.

Today, exit polls mirror those findings. According to surveys conducted by Edison Research for the National Election Pool, published in the New York Times, when asked which issues mattered most in determining a person’s voting decision, 82 percent of Republican voters surveyed said the economy was the chief concern, while 82 percent of Democrat voters named the pandemic the top issue.

These divisions arose when voters were surveyed about other key pandemic questions, according to the exit polling data:

  • Republicans prioritized rebuilding the economy and Democrats prioritized stopping the virus: When asked what was more important — containing the virus now even if it hurt the economy, or rebuilding the economy now at the cost of stopping the virus — 76 percent of Republicans opted for rebuilding the economy now, while 80 percent of Democrats wanted to see the pandemic curtailed first.
  • Democrat voters were far less likely than Republicans to say efforts to contain the virus are going well: 94 percent of Democrats said the efforts were going “very badly” and 84 percent of Republicans said they’re going “very well.”
  • Democrats reported experiencing much more financial hardship as a result of the pandemic than Republicans: 72 percent said they experienced severe financial hardship, compared to 26 percent of Republicans. (That finding squares with employment analyses before the election, showing post-coronavirus job losses have been felt more deeply in blue places than in red ones — because of both the policy approaches of governors and the existing structure of their economies.)
  • Democrats were also far more likely to think mask-wearing is a matter of public health responsibility: 64 percent of Democrats said mask-wearing is a public health responsibility while 72 percent of Republicans said it’s a personal choice.

Even in states like Iowa — where nearly 40 percent of people know someone who is sick — the economy may have mattered more for voters than the virus. And it’s possible Republicans don’t blame Trump for the country’s pandemic problems the way Democrats do. According to Change Research, when voters in states with Democratic governors were asked “who do you blame” for the pandemic, Republicans blamed their governor; Democrats blamed Trump.

Similarly, the exit polling data revealed that 93 percent of Republicans felt Trump would better handle the pandemic, while 92 percent felt Biden would.

So Trump’s disparaging of expert advice about reopening, flouting of the mask requirement, and focus on restoring the economy to its pre-pandemic boom may have been exactly what his voters longed to hear.

The dichotomy between public health and the economy is a false one — but maybe not for Trump voters

We’ve seen, in countries around the world, that bringing Covid-19 cases to very low levels is better for the economy in the long run than the repeated lockdown and release cycles North America and Europe are currently facing.

As global health experts keep saying: The choice between controlling the virus and restarting the economy is a false one. “If we want people to feel comfortable enough to go back out to bars and restaurants, to travel, and to send their kids to school, we need to see a decline in cases, and people need to feel confident that their peers will behave responsibly for the greater good,” said Shannon Monnat, professor and co-director of the Policy, Place, and Population Health Lab at Syracuse University.

The Trump campaign apparently anticipated Republican voters wouldn’t see it that way. Perhaps that’s because, even with the virus surging in red states, they just haven’t felt the same economic consequences voters in blue states have. Or maybe Trump supporters simply view the president as the leader with a good economic record who can rebuild the economy.

Either way, in many states struggling to contain coronavirus cases, economic pain and fear trumped fear of the virus — helping Trump pad his Electoral College total.