Context: While the COVID-19 pandemic has affected all Americans, the effects have not been equally distributed across geographic areas. These variations in the pandemic’s severity—and public perceptions thereof—likely have political consequences. In this study, we examine the factors that shape perceptions of COVID-19 at the local level and assess the consequences of these perceptions for public opinion and political behaviors.

Methods: Using questions from the 2020 Cooperative Election Study (CES) linked with county-level COVID-19 rates, we examine predictors of respondents’ perceptions of the severity of the pandemic in their county, including demographic, political, and informational characteristics. We also examine whether these perceptions are associated with public opinion and voter behavior.

Findings: Respondents’ perceptions are correlated with actual case rates, although liberals and Democrats estimate the pandemic as more severe than Republicans and conservatives, as do CNN viewers compared to Fox News viewers. We found only limited evidence of a relationship between perceptions of the pandemic in a respondent’s county and political outcomes.

Conclusions: Results add to accumulating evidence that both news media and political predispositions shape perceptions of COVID-19, but raise important questions about whether and how the pandemic has shaped, and will continue to shape, political outcomes.

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