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Government responses to the coronavirus pandemic have garnered support and opposition from citizens the world over. In the United States, the federal, state and local governments have been responsible for creating and implementing policies to address the coronavirus pandemic, and actions taken by all levels of government have been highly visible to the public eye. This multilevel governance strategy has allowed for local flexibility and innovation, but has also caused considerable friction between the levels of government, disputes that have often devolved into partisan disagreement and politicized strategies for crisis abatement. Given the polarized nature of the government’s response to the pandemic, one might expect partisan differences in how well or badly respondents thought each level of government had handled the Covid-19 pandemic.
A nationally representative FSU Institute of Politics survey reveals that Americans are united in their support for local government management of the pandemic, but are generally more critical of federal and state-level responses. Importantly, although Democrats and Republicans differ in their support for the federal and state governments, there is no partisan divide regarding support for the local government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis. Sixty-one percent of Democrats and Republicans, respectively, approve of their local government’s handling of challenges related to Covid-19.
Overall Support for Levels of Government
To measure public evaluation of governmental responses to Covid-19, we fielded a nationally representative survey of U.S. residents between February 5-25, 2021. Respondents were asked how well or badly they thought each level of government had handled the Covid-19 pandemic, respondents could choose ‘Very Well,’ ‘Somewhat Well,’ ‘Somewhat Bad,’ ‘Bad,’ or ‘Don’t Know.’ We collapse these categories for the sake of simplicity and exclude ‘Don’t Know’ responses for ease of exposition. Table 1 shows how respondents evaluated the performance of each level of government regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
Overall, 45% of respondents thought the federal government had handled the pandemic well, with an absolute majority (55%) expressing their dissatisfaction. At the state level, respondents were equally split, with half responding their state government had handled the pandemic well, and equal number judging their state’s performance as poor. Local governments got the highest ratings from the respondents, with a wide majority—58%—reporting that their local government had handled the pandemic well. In general, as the level of government drops from national to local, public support for the government’s handling of coronavirus increases among respondents.
Partisan Support for Levels of Government
Moving now to the partisan divide, Table 2 shows how support for each level of government differs by party. We see that partisanship correlates with evaluation of federal and state government performance: in both cases support for government was higher among Democrats than Republicans. Notably, this represents a sharp shift in the partisan evaluation as compared to 2020: polls conducted by the Pew Research Center show that throughout 2020, a wide majority of Republicans judged the federal government’s performance positively, and were especially supportive of President Trump’s approach to the crisis management.
Figure 1: Support for Local Government’s Handling of Coronavirus by Party*
Yet despite the 16-point difference between Democrats and Republicans in their judgment of federal government, there is partisan consensus about how the local government has handled coronavirus, as we show in Figure 1. 61% of Democrats and Republicans, respectively, indicated that they thought the local government handled coronavirus well. As Charles R. Adrian described in 1952, local politics is separate from national politics as “there being no Republican way to pave a street and no Democratic way to lay a sewer.” Referring to a version of the old adage, Richard Florida says simply, “Local government is pragmatic and gets things done.” Although recent research challenges this proverb, our results demonstrate that at least on the evaluation of the local government’s response to Covid-19, Democrats and Republicans are united, with the majority commending the local government’s efforts.
This research is part of the Covid-19, Crises, & Support for the Rule of Law project. Support for this part of the project comes in part from the Institute of Politics, who generously provided funding for this survey. The broader research agenda examines public support for the rule of law as the Covid-19 related crises have placed strain on the institutions of democracy, and caused citizens to habituate to increased governmental intrusion in their daily lives. Understanding how, if, and when the public’s commitment to the rule of law might buttress the institutions of American democracy in the face of profound challenges is a central aim of this broader project.
Taylor Kinsley Chewning is a PhD student in the Department of Political Science at Florida State University.
Dr. Amanda Driscoll is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Florida State University.
Dr. Jay Krehbiel is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at West Virginia University.
Dr. Michael Nelson is an Associate Professor in the Department of Political Science at Pennsylvania State University.
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