The Real Cost of Political Polarization: Evidence from the COVID-19 Pandemic

44 Pages Posted: 30 Jun 2020 Last revised: 17 Aug 2020

See all articles by Christos Makridis

Christos Makridis

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School of Management

Jonathan T. Rothwell

Gallup; George Washington University Institute of Public Policy; Brookings Institution

Date Written: June 29, 2020


While the coronavirus represents a global shock to economic and public health outcomes, there is significant regional heterogeneity within countries. This paper examines the role of political factors in mediating the formation of beliefs among individuals and the adoption of regional policies in the United States. First, using the most comprehensive and nationally representative data on over 47,000 individuals available from March to July, we document that heterogeneity in beliefs about the pandemic and social distancing behaviors is driven primarily by political affiliation. Republicans are 18% less likely to expect significant economic disruption to extend beyond the year and 4% less likely to be very worried about the virus, relative to independents, whereas Democrats are 11% and 6% more likely, respectively. Political affiliation is systematically more predictive than factors directly connected to the disease, including age, county infections, and even employment status. Second, we examine how political partisanship arising from these differences in beliefs about the virus propagate into the adoption of state policies. We find that states with a 10% higher share of Trump voters in 2016 are roughly 18 percentage points less likely to adopt nonessential business closures or stay-at-home orders, although we observe no differences in the incidence of testing or adoption of mask requirements. The adoption of these nonessential business closures and stay-at-home orders are associated with sharp declines in retail visits, as well as a 1-4 percentage point decline in credit card spending and small business revenue growth, relative to trend. The adoption of mask requirements mitigates the spread of infections at least as much as stay-at-home orders and comes with no adverse economic effects. Our results are consistent with macroeconomic models of rational inattention and coarse thinking where individuals group situations into categories based on political affiliation.

Keywords: Beliefs, Coronavirus and COVID-19, Economic Disruption, Expectations, Partisanship, Political Affiliation, Social Distancing

JEL Classification: E66, E71, I12, I31

Suggested Citation

Makridis, Christos and Rothwell, Jonathan T., The Real Cost of Political Polarization: Evidence from the COVID-19 Pandemic (June 29, 2020). Available at SSRN:

Christos Makridis (Contact Author)

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) - Sloan School of Management ( email )

100 Main Street
Cambridge, MA 02142
United States

Jonathan T. Rothwell

Gallup ( email )

901 F St NW
Washington, DC 20004
United States

George Washington University Institute of Public Policy ( email )

2121 I Street NW
Washington, DC 20052
United States

Brookings Institution ( email )

1775 Massachusetts Ave, NW
Washington, DC 20036
United States

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