Here’s why knowing someone with COVID-19 can moderate your political views

COVID-19 and the 2020 U.S. Presidential Election

Jason S. Byers
Published in
4 min readSep 4, 2021


By: Jason Byers and Laine P. Shay

COVID-19 has significantly impacted the United States over the past year and a half. As of late August 2021, in the United States alone, there have been over 38 million confirmed cases and approximately 637,000 COVID-19 related deaths.

During his final year in office, President Trump initiated — to put it mildly — many questionable decisions related to the pandemic. For instance, during a coronavirus press briefing, President Trump speculated that disinfectant could potentially be used as a treatment for COVID-19. Furthermore, he strongly pushed for the use of hydroxychloroquine, an unverified treatment, for those with COVID-19. Finally, at a South Carolina rally, President Trump compared COVID-19 and its effects to the common flu. When asked to rate his own leadership on the pandemic, he stated “I’d rate it a 10,” and in another press briefing, he exclaimed “I think we’ve done a fantastic job.”

This discussion begs the following questions: what factors influence a citizen’s evaluation of President Trump’s leadership on the pandemic? Furthermore, what are the political consequences of these perceptions of President Trump?

Does Knowing Someone with COVID-19 Impact Perceptions of Presidential Leadership?

In recent research published in American Politics Research, we explore the factors that influence a citizen’s evaluation of President Trump’s leadership, as it relates to the coronavirus. We use public opinion data from a Washington Post/ABC News Survey and a FOX News Survey, which asks respondents to evaluate President Trump’s leadership on the pandemic.

One pattern that we observe in both surveys is that knowing someone diagnosed with COVID-19, conditioned on political ideology, impacts a citizen’s evaluation of President Trump’s leadership on COVID-19. We find that citizens who do not know anyone diagnosed with COVID-19 express highly polarized views of President Trump, with conservatives being more likely to approve of President Trump and his management of the pandemic and more liberal citizens being more likely to negatively evaluate his management of the COVID-19.

Interestingly, we find that knowing someone with COVID-19 significantly reduces ideological evaluations of President Trump’s leadership on the pandemic. Conservatives who know someone inflicted with the virus are more likely to offer negative evaluations of President Trump, relative to conservatives who do not know anyone diagnosed with the virus. Conversely, liberals who know someone diagnosed with COVID-19 are less likely to hold a negative evaluation of the president, compared to liberals without this emotional proximity.

Why does this pattern emerge?

We think that citizens who do not know anyone inflicted with COVID-19 are more likely to engage in motivated reasoning, or their evaluations of President Trump are based on a shared political ideological identity. Conversely, citizens who do know someone with COVID-19, are less likely to engage in such behavior.

For example, conservatives that know someone suffering from the coronavirus might be more cognizant of President Trump’s management style, and increasingly aware of the controversial statements he’s made, such as coldly stating “it is what it is” when asked about the rising COVID-19 fatality rates in the United States. For liberals who know someone with COVID, they may seek out information and learn about the complexities involved in mitigating the pandemic, thus, offering less negative evaluations. This type of liberal may learn about the shifting positions within the scientific community on the use of masks to mitigate the virus, causing them to offer less negative evaluations of President Trump.

Consequences of Presidential Approval on Managing the Pandemic

In addition to examining citizen’s evaluations of President Trump’s leadership on COVID-19, we were also interested in uncovering the political consequences of the public’s evaluation of President Trump’s leadership. Using the Washington Post/ABC News Survey, we analyzed whether a respondent’s approval or disapproval of President Trump’s leadership on COVID-19 might impact their vote choice in the November 2020 election.

We find that citizens who disapprove of President Trump’s leadership on the pandemic were overwhelmingly less likely to vote for him in the presidential election. Figure 2 shows that 78% of the citizens that approve of President Trump’s decisions on COVID-19 would vote for him in the 2020 presidential election. Alternatively, only 9% of citizens that disapprove of President Trump’s management on COVID-19 are likely to support him in the 2020 presidential election.

Figure 1. Percentage of respondents who plan to vote for Trump in the 2020 presidential election based on whether they approve/disapprove of his leadership on COVID-19. Data based on Byers and Shay (2021).

What Did This Mean for the 2020 Presidential Election?

Our analysis finds that perceptions of President Trump’s leadership on COVID-19 strongly influenced a citizen’s vote choice. If President Trump had devoted more attention to mitigating the pandemic, then we argue his odds of winning the 2020 U.S. presidential election would have increased.

Also, it appears that President Biden was wise to make the pandemic a crucial issue in the campaign, as this was a prominent factor for some voters. Additionally, recent research explores the factors that can exasperate political polarization within the public on issues related to the pandemic. Our analysis compliments these new studies because it suggests that emotional proximity (i.e., knowing someone diagnosed with COVID-19) can de-polarize some political attitudes associated with the pandemic.



Jason S. Byers
Writer for

Visiting Assistant Professor of Data Science in the Department of Mathematics & Computer Science and the Department of Political Science at Davidson College.