Poll: A New National Conversation About COVID-19 Is Urgently Needed to Overcome Partisan Divide and Save Lives

“Changing the COVID Conversation” data reveal insights that can help build trust in public health measures and government officials

Ten months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Americans remain divided along party lines about how serious the virus is and what steps should be taken to contain it, according to a new poll by pollster Frank Luntz and the de Beaumont Foundation. The poll also reveals language that political and health leaders can use to reach all audiences, build trust in public health measures, and save lives. (See COVID Communications Cheat Sheet.)

“We don’t have a partisan divide — it’s a chasm,” said Dr. Luntz, who conducted the poll Nov. 21-22. “The words our leaders are using need an immediate upgrade. What they’re saying isn’t working. Democrats and Republicans simply think differently and act differently. We need to accept this as fact.

“Based on our findings, our leaders need to remove politics and partisanship from their messaging and give Americans a better reason to comply other than because it’s good for them. They must remind people that it’s also good for the people they love and will speed up the return to a strong economy and a normal life.”

Brian C. Castrucci, DrPH, president and CEO of the de Beaumont Foundation, which focuses on improving state and local public health, said, “Effective communication is always important in public health, but it’s never been more important for health leaders to understand the perceptions of Americans and modify their language accordingly. We approached Frank Luntz to do this work because we need to build bridges and use language that builds trust and improves compliance with urgent public health measures.”

It’s never been more important for health leaders to understand the perceptions of Americans and modify their language accordingly.  –Dr. Brian Castrucci

The poll, “Changing the COVID Conversation,” reflects the views of 1,100 respondents, including an oversample of 300 African Americans. It highlights how much of the messaging and language being used by public health experts, state and local officials, and the White House is missing the mark – and failing to motivate millions of Americans to get behind life-saving public health precautions, such as masking, testing, social distancing, and vaccinations. See topline results segmented by political party and by race. Insights include:

  • Political and health leaders need to focus on the benefits of success, not just the consequences of failure.
  • Public health leaders must make the case that the science about steps that can prevent the spread of COVID-19 is settled. When asked what would make them not take precautions like mask wearing, hand washing, and social distancing, nearly one-third of Republicans selected the response “the jury is still out on how we should best combat the virus, as health recommendations have changed over time.”
  • Politicians are not credible messengers about the pandemic — it will be most effective to use scientists and medical and public health leaders as spokespeople.
  • Public health and the economy cannot be separated. Leaders need to emphasize that doing the right thing now means a faster economic recovery.
  • Vaccine hesitancy is real. Among all respondents, 10% said “I would never take the vaccine for COVID-19” – compared with 6% of Democrats, 13% of Republicans, and 19% of African Americans. Only 4% of African Americans said they would take the vaccine “without hesitation,” compared with 16% of the national total, 15% of Democrats, and 16% of Republicans.

Highlights of Poll Findings

  • While Americans agree that the COVID pandemic is getting worse, there is a chasm between Democrats and Republicans about how serious the situation is, with 62% of Democrats saying the current situation with COVID is “extremely serious,” compared with only 33% of Republicans feeling the same way. In total, 74% of respondents said the situation is “very serious” or “extremely serious,” while for African Americans that number was 86%.
  • When asked “What should our strategy and approach be with COVID-19 right now?” the most favored approach by Republicans was to “open everything now/learn to live with the virus,” while Democrats favored “close down a little more since the virus has gotten worse.”
  • Overall, 23% of respondents know someone close to them who has died from COVID-19 — 30% of Democrats and only 18% of Republicans. Even higher is the number of African Americans who know someone who has died (34%).
  • Americans most trust scientists and public health officials to deliver factual information — more than President Trump, President-elect Biden, governors, mayors, and members of Congress. Trust in the CDC and Dr. Anthony Fauci remains high.
  • Support for wearing masks may be stronger than people think. When asked to identify the most “sensible, responsible and impactful” public health measure to reduce the spread of COVID-19, respondents of all parties (59%) chose “wearing a face mask in public,” more than any other approach.

 Language to Reset the COVID Conversation

This poll highlights the urgent need to change our pandemic lexicon in order to help bridge key differences and rally Americans across the country and across the political spectrum to adopt life-saving public health precautions. For example:

  • Forty-nine percent of Americans consider a “pandemic” more “significant, serious and scary” than “COVID-19” (39%) or “the coronavirus (13%).
  • Respondents had a much more positive reaction to a “stay-at-home order” than a “lockdown” or “aggressive restrictions.”
  • Referring to policies to combat the pandemic as “fact-based” is more effective than saying they’re based on “science,” “data,” or “medicine.”
  • Americans have a more positive reaction when rules and regulations to address COVID-19 are called “protocols” rather than “mandates,” “directives,” “controls,” or “orders.”
  • More than 4 in 5 respondents prefer “face masks” over “facial coverings.”

For more language tips, see the COVID Communications Cheat Sheet.

Poll Methodology

The poll represents a nationwide survey of 800 registered voters from across the country, including an oversample of 300 African Americans, and has a margin of error of +3%. A representative sample of the nation’s demographics, including age, gender, race, education, and income, were polled on the preferred words, sentences, phrases, and attributes Americans need to hear to change their behavior and stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.