Context: Although the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all Americans, its effects have been unequally distributed across geographic areas. These variations in the pandemic's severity—and public perceptions thereof—likely have political consequences. This study examines the factors that shape perceptions of COVID-19 at the local level and assesses the consequences of these perceptions for public opinion and political behaviors.
Methods: The authors use questions from the 2020 Cooperative Election Study linked with county-level COVID-19 rates to examine predictors of respondents' perceptions of the pandemic's severity in their county, including demographic, political, and informational characteristics. The study also examines whether these perceptions are associated with public opinion and voter behavior.
Findings: Respondents' perceptions are correlated with case rates. Liberals and Democrats estimate the pandemic to be more severe than Republicans and conservatives do, as do CNN viewers compared to Fox News viewers. The study found only limited evidence of a relationship between perceptions of the pandemic in a respondent's county and political outcomes.
Conclusions: The results add to the accumulating evidence that both news media and political predispositions shape perceptions of COVID-19, and they raise important questions about whether and how the pandemic has shaped—and will continue to shape—political outcomes.