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Thousands of candidates reinventing politics on the fly for the age of pandemic – msnNOW



The Democratic Party’s great hope for winning a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina spends his days during coronavirus lockdown repositioning his computer to avoid sun glare on his webcam.

© Zack Wittman/for The Washington Post
A voter leaves the Oldsmar Fire Department voting precinct in Oldsmar, Fla., after voting in Florida’s primary election on March 17.

“I have been relegated to the sun porch,” said Cal Cunningham, a former state lawmaker and military veteran, whose wife and teenage children were not impressed enough by his March 3 primary win to cede him workspace in their Raleigh home. “The challenge with the sun porch is that the sun starts on one side and moves to the other.”

Such blinding inconveniences have become a new reality for political professionals across the country, as the social distancing clampdown has transformed the art and logistics of politicking just in time for the quadrennial election circus to launch into overdrive. 

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While much of the attention has focused on former vice president Joe Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, hunkering down in his Delaware basement to record his podcast, or President Trump seeking to monopolize the evening television airwaves, covid-19 has swiftly transformed all corners of the political universe.

Local candidates and name-brand leaders alike have been forced to abandon rallies, community centers and campaign offices. Volunteers, organizers and operatives have been quarantined into virtual meetings, letter-writing campaigns and mobile-texting blitzes.

One-on-one coffee meetings, the essential element of the political organizer’s day, still happen, but they occur virtually, with home-brewed tea.

Entire organizations have pivoted to meet the moment. Senior Republican officials, who have hundreds of Zoom meetups scheduled at any moment, boast of field organizers delivering groceries for homebound turnout targets. The Florida Democratic Party calls its 6 p.m. virtual phone banks “wine downs,” encouraging drinking and conversation in an effort to make the events more social.

That’s created a campaign like no other. With decades-old tactics instantly obsolete, no one knows what will work, how long it will last, what voters want to hear — or how this might reshape politics in the future.

Slideshow by photo services

In the meantime, it’s prompted an urgent hunt for ways to re-create the intimacies at the heart of politics. “During the time of social distancing, it is definitely important to get creative with the way we’re connecting with volunteers and the voters,” said John Koons, a leader of the Trump field program in Pennsylvania, at the start of a training this month for about 70 new volunteers for Trump’s reelection bid.

The training, which has been repeated dozens of times across the country, had all the markings of this new era — a heavy emphasis on mobile-first technology, warnings not to be put off by frustrated voters on the other end of the line, and aspirational, if not anachronistic, talking points about door knocking and Trump’s impact on the economy.

“The economy has been a huge accomplishment of him, adding millions of jobs every single year,” Koons said during the April 14 event, just days before the Labor Department announced that 22 million people had lost their jobs in a four-week span.

The Democratic Party, which remains far less centralized and is still retooling for a Biden candidacy, has also stepped up its efforts to virtually train thousands of “digital organizers” in the arts of voter contact, social media and volunteer recruitment.

“We needed to give our community something to do,” said Meg DiMartino, the digital organizing director of the Democratic National Committee. “We cannot take an eight-week sabbatical from organizing.”

a sign on the side of a building: A campaign field office for former vice president Joe Biden in Des Moines ahead of the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.

© Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post
A campaign field office for former vice president Joe Biden in Des Moines ahead of the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.

Republican and Democratic strategists, along with grass roots activists, describe a novel moment in political life. Never before have so many Americans been homebound, with time on their hands to answer the phone or put in volunteer hours. Pollsters have found that people are answering their phones again at rates not seen in decades.

“It’s like it’s the 1990s and everyone is basically an old woman in rural Iowa picking up their landlines,” said John Anzalone, a pollster for Biden.

At the same time, the virus has displaced politics and elections as a concern for many, as people worry about making rent or mortgage payments, finding food and staying healthy. As a result, everyone from national organizers to local candidates has shifted their messaging from big-picture arguments to practical questions about how they can help.

“Folks want to feel like they belong somewhere, like they are part of a team, so we are trying to do our best to give them that experience,” said Geoff Burgan, a spokesman for Organizing Together 2020, an independent group backed by labor that is building field organizations with a staff of more than 400 in six swing states. “It’s getting the in-person rush of a campaign office and helping to bring that online.”

For Kathy Knecht, a Democrat and former school board member running for the Arizona legislature, that means trying to figure out new ways of connecting with voters. She has been partnering with her local chapter of Indivisible, a liberal grass roots organization, to hold Zoom fundraising raffles that bring in hundreds of dollars at a time.

The pandemic-appropriate prizes include baskets of toilet paper called “bouquets” as well as “survival baskets” stuffed with toilet paper, wine, coffee and cleaning products. The prizes are awarded randomly to people who have recently donated to Knecht’s campaign on the liberal fundraising site ActBlue.

“The tone of our campaign has changed to more empathetic, because we know that not just the community at large but even our own volunteers are dealing with this virus in their own lives,” Knecht said.

a statue of a man: Voters stand outside a polling station after casting their ballots at the Burton Barr Library in Phoenix, on March 17.

© Cheney Orr/Reuters
Voters stand outside a polling station after casting their ballots at the Burton Barr Library in Phoenix, on March 17.

Since many of her prospective voters in the Phoenix suburbs are elderly, she has plans to offer them the services of her adult children who have been living with her during the pandemic. “I am going to suggest that if older people need tech support, reach out to our campaign and one of our Gen-Z’ers can do it,” she said.

For Patricia Thomas, an Indivisible activist in the west Phoenix area, the number of nightly Zoom call invitations can become overwhelming. “The biggest problem I’m running into is having so many things to join,” she said.

That’s partly because there is hardly a political operation in America that has not announced a commitment to video conferencing as a way of keeping the human connection going, making the online engagement exhausting at times.

“Our philosophy is we keep going no matter what,” said Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the Justice Democrats, who has been hosting “live stream town hall discussions.” “We are focusing on the things we can control.”

The Trump campaign has been particularly aggressive on this front after switching to an all-digital campaign in March. Most of its targeted states have more than a dozen “MAGA meet ups” scheduled at any one time, with occasional special appearances by surrogates like the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr.

Trump operatives say their activity is at an intensity level normally reserved for a campaign’s closing weeks.

“We are having field operation output at ‘final 30 days’ levels now,” said Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for the Trump campaign. “The whole campaign from the beginning — from five years ago — has been built on data, so we were much better equipped to pivot to an exclusively online campaign than anyone else.”

For Democrats looking to flip the U.S. Senate blue, there was less of a ramp-up period. Mark Kelly, a Democrat and former astronaut running for a Republican-held seat in Arizona, has taken to giving talks on Instagram about what he learned in space about living in isolation.

He has also read a bedtime story to kids with his twin brother, who lived in the International Space Station.

That practice of reading stories online has been picked up by other political figures as well. Chris Bollwage, the mayor of Elizabeth, N.J., the state’s fourth largest city, has taken to reading a new children’s book every night, pulling a few hundred, or maybe a few thousand, views on Facebook and Twitter.

“I’d like to dedicate it to my friend Katie,” he said before introducing “The Duckling Gets a Cookie” by Mo Willems on Friday night. “Katie really likes cookies, and this is a special one for her.”

Cunningham, meanwhile, has learned to stack his Zoom meetings one after another on the sun porch, flitting between county Democratic gatherings, small business leaders, fundraising events and staff calls. When the Internet goes down, taking his Zoom and Google Hangouts with it, he shifts to FaceTime to keep gripping and grinning from a distance.

“I can both cover a lot more geography quicker and engage people in a very meaningful dialogue,” he said of his new life on the digital campaign trail, praising the technology’s ability to put questions in a queue. “If I am standing in a courthouse room addressing 40, 50, 60 people, it is a little harder to get to everyone’s question.”

But for many politicians, firing up audiences and plunging into crowds is the heart of political life, and this period of isolation feels disturbingly impersonal. Cunningham, for one, will be happy to get off the porch.

“I certainly love to travel and see people in person,” he said. “I miss that tremendously.”

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Julie Van Dusen reflects on a career covering politics



Julie Van Dusen has been a journalist with CBC News for over 30 years. In that time she’s been Canadians’ eyes and ears in the halls of federal power, witness to some of the most important political events of the age. She announced this week that she is retiring from CBC to pursue other projects.

I came to the Parliamentary Bureau a little over 30 years ago. It seems like only yesterday

It was supposed to be temporary. I never left.

Actually, I did leave for two years in total — three surprise maternity leaves. (You try it!) Then I came back, pronto, to the peace and quiet of filing for a 24-hour news channel.

I consider myself one of the luckiest reporters in Canada. I have had a career on Parliament Hill — an exhilarating career, in a place I truly love.

Walking up every morning to go to work at Centre Block, the most beautiful Neo-Gothic building in the country, was a thrill on its own. Add to that the privilege of covering the hurly-burly of Canada’s democracy, and you can understand why I often wanted to pinch myself over my good fortune.

A childhood on the Hill

My dad spent 40 years on Parliament Hill, so it always felt like a second home to me. My mom, an artist, would often paint the Parliamentary buildings. She would load us into the station wagon and we would fight and swat at each other in the back while she tried to create in the front seat. One of her paintings hangs in the Speaker’s Hallway. I pass it often.

My Dad would take us kids to the Hill — all seven of us — for different events, including Christmas parties. I remember running around the Foyer as a toddler, screaming with excitement. Who knew I would get paid to do the same thing years later?

Making a living pursuing and scrumming so many politicians in that same venerable location. Never, ever getting sick of it, never getting bored, always learning. At one point, along with my dad there were five Van Dusens roaming about the Hill. So much fun!


Liberal leader John Turner (left) and Conservative leader Brian Mulroney point fingers at each other during a debate from the 1988 federal election campaign. (Fred Chartrand/Canadian Press)


I have covered so many history-making moments in Canadian politics, starting from the day I came to the Parliamentary Bureau in 1988, during the “free trade” election. A series of seismic events in Canadian politics followed: the Meech Lake Accord, the birth of the Bloc Québécois and the Charlottetown Accord. It was one big constitutional roller coaster.

I moved briefly to Montreal in 1995 to cover the heart-stopping sovereignty referendum and watched mesmerized as Lucien Bouchard, who had recently survived an attack of flesh-eating disease, turned the whole thing on its ear over a Thanksgiving weekend. It is a time I will never forget.


Bloc Quebecois leader Lucien Bouchard wipes his brow as he is joined on stage with his wife Audrey Best after the defeat of the Yes side in the Quebec referendum in Montreal Monday night, Oct. 30, 1995. (Canadian Press/Paul Chiasson)


I’ve seen so many party coups up-close as leaders were handed their heads. As kids, we would get the inside scoop from my father about the mutiny against John Diefenbaker.

Sometimes a leader gets ousted with lightning speed (Stockwell Day, Stéphane Dion, Andrew Scheer). Sometimes the ejection unfolds in slow motion (the prolonged unraveling of Jean Chrétien’s leadership).

The end result is always the same. When enough people want you to go, they’ll find a way to make your life miserable.

I’ve seen waves of people flocking to the Hill to protest or to advocate for an cause, on the front lawn and in the corridors.

A society in flux

I’ve witnessed tectonic shifts in society, from the abortion law going down to defeat in the Senate, to the legalization of same-sex marriage, to the government giving the green light to recreational marijuana use.

I’ve talked to every Canadian political figure you can name over the past 30 years, and many famous non-politicians as well. (I can still hear Mother Teresa’s pithy comments on family planning.)


After more than 30 years covering politics from Parliament Hill, CBC reporter Julie Van Dusen announced this week she is moving on to other projects. Here are some highlights from her relentless work as a journalist. 0:55

I’ve seen politicians struggle behind the scenes with big problems, divorces, mental health issues, unruly kids and the angst of being away from their families. I feel so privileged to have known so many of these men and women.

They’re not just suits going in and out of question period. They are so much more than just names on a ballot. They are risk-takers, the ones who throw themselves into the emotional cauldron and brutal machinations of politics, and give up much of their personal lives, to make our democracy work.

The art of the scrum

I’ve loved covering Canadian politics for so many reasons — but especially for our method of buttonholing politicians. Thanks to the wizardry and agility of our amazing cameramen, I’ve been in walking-backward scrums, running scrums, elevator scrums, escalator scrums, and one flinging-myself-onto-the-hood-of-a-moving-car scrum. (My kids call me “scrummy mummy.”)

Like so many of us, I was jolted by the 2014 shooting on the Hill. Your workplace never seems the same after you hear gunshots and smell gunpowder near the scene of your last scrum, while lying on the floor of a nearby office for eight hours hoping some armed madman doesn’t storm through the unlocked, furniture-barricaded door that’s your only protection.


Prime Minister Stephen Harper hugs Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in the House of Commons on Thursday October 23, 2014, a day after a gunman stormed Parliament. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)


Over the years, I’ve been touched and gratified by how we at the CBC look after one another. Yes, we arrive every day to an adrenaline rush of deadlines. But when the chips are down, when a relative has died or someone is going through a hard time, we rally around, we embrace and nourish each other with good wishes, flowers and casseroles.

I am extremely grateful for the CBC’s team of professionals — so good at getting the news on the air and meeting impossible deadlines.

Thank you

So thank you, all of you — the bosses who became my mentors, the cameramen, editors, producers, reporters, researchers, resource specialists, sound techs and writers.

I have learned so much from all of you, shared so many laughs. (And I would like to officially apologize now for all the times my hair was in the shot.)


Julie Van Dusen, upper right, and other reporters speak to Chrystia Freeland, then minister or Foreign Affairs, in the foyer of the House of Commons in September, 2018. Van Dusen is moving off the Hill to pursue other projects. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)


I will never stop loving the CBC, public broadcasting and all that it’s taught me. Most of all, I will always cherish and be so grateful for the lifelong friendships I have made coast to coast to coast.

Je veux aussi remercier mes collegues a Radio Canada, pour votre amitie et patience envers “l’anglaise.”

And now, I’m off. I have deadline-driven projects that I want to tackle in the coming months. Keep up the rock-solid and compassionate coverage of the pandemic and all of the other news. I will be watching, listening and reading — and most likely pining for the action.

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Edited BY Harry Miller

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How Violent Protests Change Politics – The New Yorker



Examining the protests after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., Omar Wasow says, gives us clues about the efficacy of violent vs. nonviolent protests.Photograph from Bettmann / Getty

On Thursday night, thousands of people gathered in the streets of Minneapolis, and other cities across the country, to protest the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by a Minneapolis police officer. Outside the Minneapolis Police Department’s Third Precinct, the protests turned violent, as people looted businesses, threw projectiles, and set the station house on fire; police in riot gear fired rubber bullets and sprayed tear gas at the crowds. On Friday, Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed Floyd, was taken into custody by Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension and charged with manslaughter and third-degree murder.

I spoke by phone, on Friday afternoon, with Omar Wasow, a professor of politics at Princeton, who studies protest movements and their effects on politics and elections. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed which tactics worked best in the civil-rights era, what violent protests have meant, historically, for Democrats running for office, and whether Donald Trump is a figure of order or disorder.

How would you summarize your work on the political effects of protest?

I would say that nonviolent protests can be very effective if they are able to get media attention, and that there is a very strong relationship between media coverage and public concern about whatever issues those protesters are raising. But there is a conditional effect of violence, and what that means, in practice, is that groups that are the object of state violence are able to get particularly sympathetic press—and a large amount of media coverage. But that is a very hard strategy to maintain, and what we often see is that, when protesters engage in violence, often in a very understandable response to state repression, that tends to work against their cause and interests, and mobilizes or becomes fodder for the opposition to grow its coalition.

What we observe in the nineteen-sixties is that there was a nontrivial number of white moderates who were open to policies that advanced racial equality, and were also very concerned about order. The needle that civil-rights activists were trying to thread was: How do you advance racial equality, and capture the attention of often indifferent or hostile white moderates outside of the South, and at the same time grow a coalition of allies? And over time the strategy that evolved was one of nonviolent protest, which actively sought to trigger police chiefs like Bull Connor [in Birmingham, Alabama,] to engage in spectacles of violence that attracted national media and would, in the language of the nineteen-sixties, “shock the conscience of the nation.” So it isn’t just nonviolence that is effective, but nonviolence met with state and vigilante brutality that is effective.

The interesting thing to me that came out of this research was that civil-rights leaders were picking Birmingham and Selma specifically because they had police chiefs with hair-trigger tendencies toward violence. So there was this strategic use of violence by the civil-rights movement, but it was to be the object of violence, not the instigators of violence. At the same time, what was very hard about, with that strategy, is that you had images of people observing their kinfolk being brutalized on television, and that helped fire up a more militant wing of the civil-rights movement, which endorsed violence in self-defense and was much less committed to tactics of nonviolence. When we observed a wave of violent protests in the mid- to late sixties, those white moderates who supported the Democratic Party after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 defected to the Republican Party in 1968. So, when the state was employing violence and protesters were the targets of that violence, the strategy worked well, and when protesters engaged in violence—whether or not the state was—those voters moved to the law-and-order coalition.

What did you find in your research, specifically about the 1968 election?

There has been a debate in social science for a long time about whether there was a backlash to the waves of violent protest in 1967 and 1968. Commonly, people will say “riot,” but I am using “violent protest” and “nonviolent protest” as the two categories. I looked at a hundred and thirty-seven violent protests that followed Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s assassination, in April, 1968. There is a bunch of evidence that protests are sensitive to weather, and when rain happens it is much less likely people engage in protests. And so we should expect that when there is more rainfall there is less likelihood that people will engage in protest, and when there is less rainfall there is more likelihood. So we get a crude natural experiment—it’s as if some places were randomly assigned a violent protest and some were not.

And what I find is that, in the week following King’s assassination, when ninety-five per cent of those violent April protests occurred, if your county was proximate to violent protests, then that county voted six to eight percentage points more toward Nixon in November. But maybe there was something correlated with rainfall driving this result, and so to address the possibility of a confounding factor, like geography, I also looked at rainfall in periods where we should expect no effect of rainfall on voting—e.g., periods before and more than a few days after the assassination. This is called a placebo test. It is only rainfall in the one week after the assassination that predicts this conservative shift in November, and, in the absence of a plausible alternative story for why rainfall in April was predicting voting in November, the most obvious explanation is that the violent protests were the cause. And so we can then claim a causal relationship between violent protests and the shift away from the Democratic coalition.

What protest tactics would you recommend for people concerned about police brutality today? On the one hand, these current protests were already sparked by state violence, so they don’t need to incite more of it. On the other hand, we have had these viral videos of police brutality for years, and it is not clear all that much is changing.

If you are an activist and there is this outrageous incident (like a knee on a neck) and you say, “How can we advance our interests?,” it might be that both violent and nonviolent protests are legitimate—but it still might be more effective to employ nonviolence, if we get everything we would from a violent protest, plus we don’t splinter a coalition that favors change. One puzzle is, if you are an activist, are nonviolent tactics going to get you more of what you want, or are violent tactics? And what I found from the sixties is that nonviolent protest achieved many of the same sorts of outcomes that the more militant activists were fighting for without splintering the Democratic coalition. There was a pro-segregation media at the time, and there were all kinds of state and federal repression—and, despite all of that, the nonviolent wing of the civil-rights movement was really able to move the country from tolerating Jim Crow to breaking Jim Crow.

So I think there is a lot of evidence that nonviolent tactics can be effective. You saw this on the first day in Minneapolis, where the police showed up with an excess of force, and you had these images of children running away and police dressed like stormtroopers. There are a set of narrative scripts in the public mind, and I think we interpret the news through those preëxisting narratives. And so a nonviolent protest where we see state excesses is a very powerful and sympathetic narrative for the cause of fighting police violence. And as soon as the tactics shift to more aggressive violent resistance—and, to be clear, as best I can tell, police were shooting rubber bullets and there was tear gas. It seemed like an excessive police response, and so in reaction protesters escalated as well. That has an unfortunate side effect of muddying the story. Instead of talking about the history of police killings in Minneapolis, we are talking about a store going up in flames, and the focus in reporting tends to shift from a justice frame to a crime frame. And that is an unfortunate thing for a protest movement. It ends up undermining the interests of the advocates.

Your answers are making me think about the Régis DeBray line that “the Revolution revolutionizes the Counter-Revolution.” Because whether intentional strategy or not, firing rubber bullets and police violence against protests may have the effect of making the protests more violent, and thus hurting the cause.

It’s a great question, and, in cross-national studies, that has definitely been shown to be a strategy. We definitely observe politicians in other countries ginning up ethnic conflict before an election, to try and heighten people’s sense of in-group identification before they vote. The evidence in the United States I have seen points more toward a kind of racialized incompetence, where the police chief in Los Angeles can behave with a certain disregard—I am thinking of the uprising in 1992. [The authorities’] response was so ham-fisted and hands-off that it allowed something to escalate to an epic scale. And I suspect most of what we saw in Minneapolis was not a strategic effort to inflame protesters, but an idiotic and incompetent over-response that also had the effect of inflaming protesters.

And it was an idiotic and incompetent response tinged by race. You don’t see these kinds of overreactions to the armed white militias. So I don’t have evidence about these being strategic efforts. I do think there is a lot of evidence that there are overreactions when the protesters are black, and that this excess of force is deployed in ways that have precisely the opposite effect of what a police chief is intending. Instead of trying to bring order, they create more chaos.

Trump has run as a law-and-order candidate, and today repeated the looting-and-shooting comment that was made by the Miami police chief Walter Headley, in 1967. At the same time, it seems like Nixon was fundamentally selling stability, and Trump often tries to destabilize situations. How do you think this will or won’t have political ramifications?

On the first part, I have looked at polling data from the sixties, and the numbers are really surprising. It was something like eighty per cent of Americans said that law and order had broken down. We had King’s assassination, and two Kennedys assassinated, and these waves of violent protests. So it was more than just urban unrest. There was a sense that the social fabric was tearing, and I think Nixon was clearly appealing to voters for whom that was an anxiety. And I also found that, in the 1966 gubernatorial election in California, Democrats who thought Pat Brown, who was the Democratic governor at the time, had handled the Watts riots poorly were hugely less likely to support him. [Ronald Reagan defeated Brown by fifteen percentage points.] So it really was pivotal in the nineteen-sixties.

What’s often hard for people to see is that there are these white moderates who are part of the Democratic coalition as long as they perceive there to be order, but when they perceive there to be too much disorder they shift to the party that has owned the issue of order, which is the Republican Party. For some people, the idea that there are these swing Democratic-minded voters is hard to grasp, but there is pretty strong evidence that in 2016, and in 1968, that was an important and influential niche of voters.

You are absolutely right that Trump, to a lot of people, is an instigator of chaos rather than a restorer of order, so I think that potentially works against him. But if you are this white moderate, and perceive the disorder to be coming from African-Americans in cities, then turning to Trump, even if you see him as a rough character, is appealing: He’s a street fighter, but he is our street fighter. So the real danger for advocates of reform in Minneapolis trying to get better policing, and for those trying to pursue racial justice nationally, is that there are people who are turned off by Trump but who have a strong taste for order, and so if they are more concerned about racial disorder, then Trump is their racial order.

Yes, essentially, to view Trump as a figure who will bring order, in any rational sense, is to have a racially tinged view of order. The only kind of order he promises—even if he can’t actually deliver it—is an order based on racial issues. This is a guy who cheers on protesters showing up with automatic weapons to state capitols.

That’s right. There was a tweet that said something like, “Who could want four more years of this?” It’s got a sort of Rorschach-like quality. If you are exhausted by Trump’s chaos, you think about who could want four more years of Trump. But it could also be that, if this is how you perceive Democratic governance—letting a police station go up in flames—then who could want four more years of disorder and lawlessness, particularly if you are someone who has a bunch of stereotypes about African-Americans and Democrats in cities.

And so, to your point, I think it is exactly right that there are different kinds of chaos people are weighing in their minds. I might say the pandemic and economic dislocation are my top priorities, but if you are someone who has deep-seated anxieties about an unsettling of the racial hierarchy in America, about an egalitarian society where you might lose some status, or a society where there isn’t enormous state capacity brought to bear on controlling out-groups, then you might say, “I want Trump because he is promising to maintain the racial hierarchy. I want someone who is tough on crime. Those are my top priorities.”

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Age Versus Politics in Determining Virus-Related Attitudes



Epidemiologists have firmly established that the probabilities of getting severe symptoms and dying from the coronavirus are positively correlated with age. This age relationship has a number of causes, including that older people are more susceptible to respiratory issues; have decreased immunity in general; are more likely to have underlying chronic diseases that make them more susceptible to severe consequences of the virus; and are in many instances living in close-quartered retirement and nursing homes.

We can assume that older people are aware of this relationship, although I haven’t seen survey research that directly assesses people’s knowledge of the relationship between age and susceptibility to the virus.

Given this assumption, we would logically conclude that older Americans would be the most likely to worry about getting the virus, most likely to socially isolate themselves and most likely to express trepidation about reduced social distancing. But the data don’t confirm these hypotheses. I’ve been looking at the attitudes and self-reports of behavior for Americans 65 and older, and find that in most instances, this group is indistinguishable in their attitudes and behaviors from those who are younger.

I’m basing this analysis on a large sample of over 12,000 individuals in Gallup’s panel interviewed between May 4 and May 24. I divided the sample into three groups by age: 18-64, 65-74, and 75-90, although for sample-size reasons, in some instances I collapse the last two into those 65 and older.

Worry About Getting the Virus Doesn’t Differ by Age

The first measure of interest is worry or concern about getting the virus, a core question in Gallup’s panel interviewing. Here we find that 49% of those 65-74 and 50% of those 75-90 are very or somewhat worried, compared with 52% of those 18-64. In other words, no significant difference by age.

Americans’ Worry About Getting the Coronavirus, by Age

How worried are you that you will get the coronavirus (COVID-19)?

Very/Somewhat worriedNot very/Not at all worried
18-64 years old5248
65-74 years old4951
75-90 years old5050
Gallup Panel, May 4-24, 2020

Logic based on the virus’ real-world impact would lead to the assumption that older people should be more worried about getting the virus. Why aren’t they?

One explanation could involve social isolation. If older Americans are more likely to be confined to their dwelling units and less likely to go out, their lower level of worry could be because they believe they are not in a position to catch the virus.

But our data on social isolation and social distancing don’t strongly support the hypothesis that older people are more homebound. Gallup’s data show that 17% of Americans under age 65 say they are completely isolated, with another 37% saying they are mostly isolated. Older Americans’ reports are not significantly different, with 19% of those 65-74 and 16% of those 75-90 saying they are completely isolated, and 41% and 40%, respectively, mostly isolated.

Americans’ Self-Reported In-Person Contact, by Age

Next, thinking about everything you’ve done in the past 24 hours, which of the following comes closest to describing your in-person contact with people outside your household?

Completely isolated yourself, having no contact with people outside your household171916
Mostly isolated yourself, having very little contact with people outside your household374140
Partially isolated yourself, having some contact with people outside your household232433
Isolated yourself a little, still having a fair amount of contact with people outside your household14108
Did not make any attempt to isolate yourself from people outside your household973
Gallup Panel, May 4-24, 2020

A separate question assessing self-reports of social distancing show some differences. Here we find that 65+ adults are about 12 percentage points more likely than those under age 65 to say they are “always” practicing social distancing, but the two groups are more equal when we look at the combined categories of those who report always and “very often” social distancing.

Older Americans are actually slightly more likely than those under age 65 to say they have been out to the grocery store in the previous 24 hours. Older Americans are also more likely to say they have visited a pharmacy and a doctor’s office, hospital or treatment center, no doubt reflecting the higher probability of having medical conditions and prescriptions as age increases.

There is a big difference by age in leaving home to go to work, as we would expect. Older Americans are much less likely to be employed than younger Americans (only 15% of those 65 and older are employed either full or part time in our panel data, compared with 70% of those 18-64). There is a lot of remote working today, but 37% of those who are under age 65 have left their home to go to work within the 24 hours before they were interviewed, compared with 13% of those 65-74 and only 2% of those 75-90.

All in all, older Americans’ worries about getting the virus may not be as high as expected because they are less likely to be working and are more likely to perceive themselves to be always practicing social distancing. But the data on self-reports of contact with other people and the frequency with which older and younger people get out to the store, pharmacy and doctor’s offices don’t confirm that hypothesis.

Partisanship Much More Powerful Than Age

There are often confounding influences at work when we look at the relationship between a demographic characteristic and another variable. Most demographic characteristics are associated with other characteristics, and sometimes those relationships help explain what’s behind an initial finding.

In the current situation, we know that politics has an inordinately large role in determining virus-related attitudes and behavior, and that political identity is age-related.

Older Americans are substantially more likely to identify as Republicans than those under age 65. Republicans are much less worried than Democrats about the virus and less likely than others to socially isolate themselves. This could mean that the lack of higher levels of worry on average among older Americans is caused by their greater likelihood to be Republican.

The data, however, show that older Democrats are no more likely to worry about getting the virus than younger Democrats, and older Republicans are only slightly more likely than younger Republicans to worry. This means there is no hidden effect of party in the age finding. No matter how we might hypothetically change the proportions of Republicans or Democrats among older Americans in the sample, there would not be a significant age skew in worry about the virus.

The same pattern holds when we look at the relationship between age and social isolation. There is little variation across age in social isolation among Democrats, while 65 and older Republicans are only slightly more likely to say they are social isolating than those who are younger.

The remarkable thing about these findings is the degree to which the subjective factor of partisanship is a much more powerful correlate of worry about the virus and self-isolation than the objective factor of age.

I call age an objective factor because the relationship between age and higher probabilities of having severe symptoms and mortality from the coronavirus is well-established. Yet, these objective facts don’t appear to make a great deal of difference to older Americans on the measures we have looked at; older Americans aren’t a lot different than those who are younger, in terms of their worry and social isolation. But one’s political self-identity makes a huge difference on these same measures. Among Americans of all age groups, Democrats are overwhelmingly more likely to say they are worried about getting the virus and are more likely to be socially isolating themselves than those who identify as Republicans. And prior research shows that these political differences are not the result of where the two partisan groups live.

Worry about getting the virus, in short, is to a significant degree a subjective phenomenon that arises from one’s political and ideological identity, and that in turn leads to big differences in actual behavior relating to the virus. The objective facts, at least based on age data, don’t seem to make a great deal of difference.

Organizations May Need to Take Partisanship of Their Members Into Account

Organizations developing their reopening plans are in many cases focusing on age as a major consideration. Religious organizations, for example, are now grappling with decisions on when and how to reopen to in-person worship in their sanctuaries, temples and mosques. In-person worship, in most instances, is skewed toward older parishioners. Religious leaders might initially jump to the conclusion that their older members would disproportionately be worried about coming back, leading to a decision to delay reopening and continue with virtual worship as a complete or parallel option.

Other entities that disproportionately depend on older patrons include restaurants, theaters, symphonies, ballet, cruises and travel destinations. All will be affected if their older customers are resistant to returning as customers.

Our data suggest that assumptions about disproportionality of concern among older members, customers and patrons need to be examined closely. Churches and other business organizations may find that the political orientation of their membership and patrons is a more powerful predictor of returning to in-person participation than the members’ and patrons’ average age.

We have some limited data from May 4-10 interviewing that speak to the issue of reopening. The question asked when people would feel comfortable in returning to normal activities if government restrictions were lifted and people were able to decide for themselves how soon they would return to normal day-to-day activities. The overall results may be somewhat dated now, but the relevant finding is the lack of significant differences in the responses by age. Those 65 and older did not differ significantly from those under age 65 in terms of saying they would return right now; after cases decline; after there were no new cases; or when a new vaccine was developed. But, importantly, there were major differences by partisanship, underscoring the basic conclusion of the power of political orientation in determining virus-related attitudes and behavior.

Source: – Gallup

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Edited By Harry Miller

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