Donald Trump appears to have benefited from a rally-round-the-flag effect among Republicans concerned with COVID-19 during the early stages of the novel coronavirus outbreak in the United States, according to new research published in PLOS One. But this effect had reversed itself just a few months later.
The new research provides some insights into how COVID-19 influenced support for Trump, and suggests the pandemic may have contributed to his defeat in 2020.
“As part of my research on the psychological effects of emotional security and insecurity, I am interested in how large-scale threats influence people’s attitudes toward leaders,” said study author Joshua Hart (@psynoir), a professor of psychology at Union College.
“I previously did a study looking at whether Hurricane Sandy influenced the 2012 US presidential election. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in the early months of a presidential election year, it seemed obvious that it would have some impact on the election, and I was curious to collect some data that might point toward an answer.”
For his study, Hart used Amazon’s Mechanical Turk platform to distribute six surveys on March 23, March 30, April 6, April 13, April 20, and June 1, 2020. He ended up with a sample of 1,763 American adults. Along with collecting demographic information, the surveys assessed how concerned the participants were with the COVID-19 pandemic and their opinion of Trump’s presidency.
The surveys also contained an experimental element: Participants were randomly assigned to either answer the pandemic-related questions before the Trump-related questions or vis-a-versa.
Unsurprisingly, Republican participants expressed greater support for Trump’s presidency than Democratic participants and independents. But other findings from the study indicated that “the effects of the pandemic on the election were not obvious or straightforward,” Hart said.
For example, among Democrats, those presented with the pandemic-related questions first tended to express less support for Trump compared to Democrats presented with the Trump-related questions first, suggesting the existence of a priming effect. However, this effect was only observed on March 23 and June 1.
Among independents, on the other hand, pandemic priming was linked to reduced support for Trump on March 30 but increased support for Trump on April 13. No effect was found on March 23, April 6, or June 1.
The situation was even more complicated among Republicans. Republican support for Trump was highest on April 6 and lowest on June 1. During the early stages of the pandemic, Republicans highly concerned about COVID-19 became more supportive of Trump after being reminded of the pandemic, while those who were unconcerned with COVID-19 became less supportive. But this trend reversed over time.
“The study suggests that in the early days of the pandemic, if it had an effect on Trump support, it may have been limited to Democrats. On June 1, the last wave of the study, Republicans who reported being concerned about the pandemic reported lower levels of Trump support than Republicans who were less concerned,” Hart told PsyPost.
“If I had to guess, the pandemic probably hurt Trump in the end among Republican voters who thought he handled it poorly. Unfortunately, my study can’t confirm that because it was conducted so early in the election cycle,” Hart said, adding that “the results were strikingly variable over time, which unfortunately limits my ability to draw firm conclusions.”
The study also shows how the design of a survey can itself subtly influence the results.
“I hope that other researchers will use the mixed experimental-priming and correlational design that I used. It is uniquely suited to test the potential effects of large-scale naturalistic events on psychological outcomes,” Hart explained.
“Most polling is purely observational and correlational and does not attempt to systematically prime respondents with particular topics to test for causal effects. I don’t know why it isn’t done more, and I’m hoping it’ll catch on.”
“Another thing I’d like people to know is that the conventional wisdom on how things like COVID-19 influence the political landscape is largely educated guesswork — the real effects are difficult to discern with certainty because, again, the data are often purely correlational, and there’s a lot going on at any given moment in time,” the researcher added.
The study, “Did the COVID-19 pandemic help or hurt Donald Trump’s political fortunes?“, was published February 24, 2021.