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Political Polarization of the Pandemic Exists in Boston, Too

There has been a national debate about the severity of COVID-19 and the necessity for social distancing guidelines, masks, and other precautions. This debate has largely conformed to the country’s existing ideological divides, with liberals and Democrats arguing for greater precautions and conservatives and Republicans questioning their value. Our survey on Living in Boston During COVID finds that the same polarization is present in Boston.

A few weeks ago, the second report in our series on the Living in Boston During COVID survey examined a series of measures capturing attitudes toward risk and social distancing guidelines, including perceived risks of infection, the importance of social distancing guidelines, mask-wearing, and belief that COVID-19 could be spread by asymptomatic individuals. At that time we uncovered a variety of differences on these measures by neighborhood and race. We have now tested a variety of explanations for these disparities, presented in a new report released this week, including the focus of this data story: political ideology.

(Note on methodology: All results presented are from regression models, which evaluate the effect of each variable independent of all other factors. These analyses took into consideration, including sex, race, political ideology, being at high-risk for a severe infection, income, education level, and others. The reader should note that we analyzed these variables simultaneously, thereby evaluating the unique effect of each independent of all other factors. (We only discuss results that reach a traditional level of statistical significance (i.e., p-value < .05).)

Consistent with Boston’s heavily liberal tilt, the majority of respondents identified as Democrat, with 43% identifying as Independent, Republican, or “something else”. As shown in Figure 8, there was a sharp divergence in attitudes when we divide the data in this way: non-Democrats saw guidelines as less important, were less likely to wear masks, and less likely to believe in asymptomatic spread. Importantly, these relationships were true when accounting for age, ethnicity, family structure, and other features described in this report, meaning they were unique to the political ideology of the respondent. These effects were substantial, similar in size to the effects we saw for sex, income, and education on various outcomes, and almost as strong as being at high risk for infection.

Figure 8. Differences between those identifying as Democrat or liberal and those who did not in
perceived risk (top left), guideline importance (top right), the likelihood of wearing masks at all times in
April (bottom left), and the likelihood of believing in the asymptomatic spread of the disease (bottom right).

On the one hand, this result may come as little surprise. Still, there are three lessons worth noting. The first is that the political polarization of the pandemic has permeated even in highly liberal Boston. The second is that these effects are not a byproduct of some other set of personal characteristics, like age or ethnicity, but appear to be specific to political ideology itself. Third is the magnitude of these effects. The effects of being an independent or conservative on beliefs and behavior were nearly as impactful as socioeconomic status and even being at high risk for a severe COVID infection.

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