When the first U.S. case of COVID-19 was reported in January, most people would not have predicted this by Thanksgiving: 11 million Americans infected, more than 250,000 dead, and a fall surge of record-breaking daily cases as the virus runs rampant.

Yet even as COVID-19 cases pile up at a staggering rate, in a politically divided nation Republicans and Democrats remain in stark disagreement over the threat of the virus and the steps necessary to mitigate its spread.

That has surprised political scientists and public health experts who thought that if the pandemic worsened, if more people became infected and the virus touched red state  skeptics and those they love, the partisan gap would begin to close. They believed the reality of what was happening in people’s cities and towns would trump political identity, unifying the nation in its fight against a deadly threat. 

It hasn’t. And it may never. 

“I thought at some point, reality would come back in for people and they would have a hard time balancing their motivations to stay consistent with their partisanship with what’s going on on the ground,” said Shana Gadarian a political psychologist at Syracuse University who has tracked American attitudes toward the pandemic since it began. “That was wholly optimistic on my part.”

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Artist Suzanne Brennan Firstenberg stands among thousands of white flags planted in remembrance of Americans who have died of COVID-19, on Oct. 27, 2020, near Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in Washington.

Gadarian and her colleagues have surveyed 3,000 American citizens five times between March and October. They found that as cases rose, Republicans’ positions remained fixed. Republicans were less worried about COVID-19 and less likely to practice social distancing or wear masks. The findings are bolstered by a paper published this month in the journal Nature Human Behaviour, which found the partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans grew as the pandemic worsened.

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