POLITICAL SCIENTISTS have conducted a lot of research recently on the effect of partisanship on the human mind. As political polarisation has increased and partisan affiliations have become more entrenched, researchers have become curious about how far leaders can shape their followers’ opinions. Gabriel Lenz, of the University of California, Berkeley, went so far as to write a book called “Follow the Leader?” about this phenomenon. Mr Lenz establishes that the folk view of elections, in which citizens form opinions and then vote for politicians who carry them to Washington, is misleading. Instead, they largely do the reverse. First, they pick a party and its leader. Then they adopt the party’s preferences.
Something similar is evident in partisans’ feelings about the economy, which they seem to match to their opinions about the president. After Donald Trump’s election in 2016, voters’ attitudes to the economy switched completely according to their party affiliation. Democrats became much less likely to think the economy was “getting better”, according to our study of weekly polling from YouGov, while Republicans became much more optimistic.
Such a dynamic is showing up in opinions about a coronavirus vaccine. Before this week’s news of a leading contender from Pfizer and BioNTech, YouGov polled Americans’ attitudes about whether they would get vaccinated and whether they were concerned about the safety of a “fast-tracked” vaccine. We can compare voters’ responses this week to those of two weeks ago, to see if the change in the country’s prospective leader has affected their opinions about the virus.
According to YouGov’s poll of 1,500 voters, conducted between October 31st and November 2nd, 43% of Democrats and 39% of Republicans said they would get vaccinated for covid-19. Fifty-three percent of Democrats also said they were worried about taking a vaccine that would be “fast-tracked through the approval process”, compared with 31% of Republicans. But since Joe Biden won the White House, Democrats have become more optimistic. This week, 48% told YouGov they would take the vaccine (a five-percentage-point increase) and 45% said they were worried about fast-tracking (an eight point drop). Meanwhile, Republicans’ opinions on the matter largely stayed put (see chart).
Partisanship in America is often decried as a malignant psychological force that clouds people’s rationality. That is fair. Yet Democrats’ increased willingness to take a coronavirus vaccine now that Mr Biden is heading for the White House could be a rare, positive exception to the rule.
Editor’s note: This article first appeared in our weekly “Checks and Balance” newsletter on American politics. You can sign up to receive it here.