Partisan divisions on COVID-19 exist in Canada but they're deeper — and more dangerous — in the U.S.

Polls suggest there are fewer differences between how Liberal and Conservative supporters in Canada view the pandemic than there are between the opinions expressed by Democrats and Republicans in the United States.

Liberal and Conservative supporters view the federal government's handling of the pandemic differently

Polls suggest there is a big gap between how Liberals and Conservatives view Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's handling of the coronavirus pandemic — but it's not as big as the partisan division in the United States. (Justin Tang / Canadian Press)

In response to a reporter's question on Monday, Ontario Premier Doug Ford passed on a chance to take a shot at the federal government over the carbon tax — and instead thanked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for his pandemic measures and called Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland "an absolute champion."

Physical distancing may be keeping people apart to keep the novel coronavirus at bay, but in Canada some partisan divisions seem to be eroding as politicians of all stripes work together to fight the pandemic.

Those divisions haven't gone away entirely, of course. Polls suggest that Liberal voters are much more likely than Conservative voters to approve of how Trudeau has handled the pandemic.

But the split isn't as stark as it has been on other issues in less challenging times. And the split is also significantly smaller here than it is between ideological opponents in the United States.

On average, Trudeau and his government received 63 per cent public approval of their handling of the health emergency in three recent surveys by EKOS Research, the Angus Reid Institute (ARI) and the Innovative Research Group (IRG).

Among people who voted Liberal in the last election, or would vote for the party today, Trudeau and his government stood at 88 per cent approval. That's not an unusual level of approval for a political leader among supporters of his or her own party.

Much less typical is the amount of support the federal government is getting for its management of the novel coronavirus outbreak among its political opponents. That support averaged 69 per cent among New Democrats, 45 per cent among Conservatives and 33 per cent among Bloc Québécois voters.

So support for the federal government's performance is an average of 43 percentage points higher among Liberals than it is among Conservatives. The difference is 19 points for New Democrat supporters and 55 points for Bloc supporters.

That margin between Liberals and Conservatives seems rather wide — until you put it in context. ARI's final pre-election poll last October found Liberals were more likely than Conservatives to say they had a favourable opinion of Trudeau by an 81-point margin.

By comparison, partisanship is a far more significant source of division in the United States.

Big partisan divide in the U.S. but not the U.K.

Trump's job approval rating on the pandemic averaged 46 per cent in two recent polls by Pew Research and YouGov. Among Republicans, he averaged 83.5 per cent approval. Among Democrats, it was just 17.5 per cent.

That puts the partisan division between Republicans and Democrats in the United States at 66 percentage points — greater than any partisan split in Canada.

The size of that split stands out not only in comparison with Canada, but with other countries as well. In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson's job rating on the pandemic averaged 68.5 per cent in two recent polls by Opinium and Number Cruncher/Bloomberg.

Among his own Conservative supporters, Johnson averaged 88.5 per cent. Among people who said they would vote Labour, the main opposition party in the U.K., his approval averaged 47.5 per cent. The margin between Conservative and Labour voters was 41 points — similar in size to the partisan division in Canada.

With all three countries imposing restrictions on their citizens in order to stem the spread of the novel coronavirus, these partisan divisions could affect how seriously people take these measures.

Very few Democratic voters approve of U.S. President Donald Trump's handling of the pandemic, according to polls. Republicans approve in much bigger numbers, but also express fewer concerns about the pandemic. (Patrick Semansky / Associated Press)

The messaging coming from U.S. President Donald Trump on the outbreak has been inconsistent. He has tweeted that the country couldn't let "the cure be worse than the problem itself" and voiced the hope that life and commerce could return to normal by Easter. He reversed course over the weekend, leaving the physical distancing guidelines in place until the end of April.

But the YouGov poll shows that Republicans had heard the earlier message loud and clear. They were nearly three times as likely as Democrats to say the threat posed by COVID-19 was being exaggerated and were half as likely to say they were "very worried."

Just 16 per cent of Democrats said COVID-19 was as dangerous as, or less dangerous than, the seasonal flu. That number was 43 per cent among Republicans. (COVID-19 is more contagious and more deadly than the seasonal flu.)

By double-digit margins, Americans who voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election were less likely than those who voted for Hillary Clinton to say they were washing their hands more frequently or avoiding crowded public places.

Partisanship less of a risk to public health in Canada

While this kind of partisan division is present in Canada, it does not appear to pose the same potential health risk.

ARI found that Conservatives made up a disproportionate number of those who think the COVID-19 threat is overblown — but polling over time shows that those holding that opinion are making up less and less of the population. Overall, ARI found that Conservatives were just as likely as Liberals to say they were washing their hands more frequently, while the vast majority of them said they believe the outbreak poses a serious threat.

EKOS found Conservatives were more likely than Liberals to say the federal government's measures haven't gone far enough — and were just as likely to say they had gone too far (for both Liberal and Conservative supporters, the percentage of those polled saying pandemic measures had overreached was less than six per cent).

Ontario Premier Doug Ford has received strong approval in polls for his handling of the pandemic in his province. (Chris Young / Canadian Press)

The widest partisan division in Canada — between Liberal and Bloc voters — has even fewer health implications. ARI found no difference at all between how seriously Liberal and Bloc voters are taking the threat or how they're changing their behaviour — and EKOS found Bloc supporters to be even less likely than Liberals to argue that the measures have gone too far.

For the most part (and particularly when compared to our neighbours to the south) it seems that Canadians are not letting politics get much in the way of efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19. The fact that formerly implacable foes like Doug Ford and Justin Trudeau can put their differences aside is perhaps the clearest sign of all.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.

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