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Polarization and public health: Partisan differences in social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic


  • Allcott, Hunt
  • Boxell, Levi
  • Conway, Jacob
  • Gentzkow, Matthew
  • Thaler, Michael
  • Yang, David


We study partisan differences in Americans' response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Political leaders and media outlets on the right and left have sent divergent messages about the severity of the crisis, which could impact the extent to which Republicans and Democrats engage in social distancing and other efforts to reduce disease transmission. We develop a simple model of a pandemic response with heterogeneous agents that clarifies the causes and consequences of heterogeneous responses. We use location data from a large sample of smartphones to show that areas with more Republicans engaged in less social distancing, controlling for other factors including public policies, population density, and local COVID cases and deaths. We then present new survey evidence of significant gaps at the individual level between Republicans and Democrats in self-reported social distancing, beliefs about personal COVID risk, and beliefs about the future severity of the pandemic.

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  • Allcott, Hunt & Boxell, Levi & Conway, Jacob & Gentzkow, Matthew & Thaler, Michael & Yang, David, 2020. "Polarization and public health: Partisan differences in social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic," Journal of Public Economics, Elsevier, vol. 191(C).
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:pubeco:v:191:y:2020:i:c:s0047272720301183
    DOI: 10.1016/j.jpubeco.2020.104254

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    More about this item


    Coronavirus; Political polarization; Media trust; Health behaviors;
    All these keywords.

    JEL classification:

    • D72 - Microeconomics - - Analysis of Collective Decision-Making - - - Political Processes: Rent-seeking, Lobbying, Elections, Legislatures, and Voting Behavior
    • I12 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health - - - Health Behavior
    • I18 - Health, Education, and Welfare - - Health - - - Government Policy; Regulation; Public Health


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