When it comes to COVID-19 and climate change, personal hardship can narrow the partisan gap

Written by
Christian Perkins
Aug. 23, 2023

Researchers show personal hardship can narrow the differences in policy support between Democrats and Republicans in the context of COVID-19 and climate change. 

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, party affiliation was used as a predictor of support for policies meant to ameliorate the spread of the virus, with Democrats more likely than Republicans to favor efforts such as compulsory masking. However, recent research shows that where self-reports of negative experiences related to the virus are high, partisan differences in policy support narrow, or even disappear. Similar outcomes associated with climate and weather-related hardship illustrate how increased levels of hardship may decrease the partisan gap in policy areas beyond the public health sector.

The study by Princeton University finds the sharpest increase in reported worry, behavior change, and policy support occurs among Republicans. The shift, the research says, is driven by negative experiences that run counter to previously held assumptions. Because Republicans are also less likely to support climate policy, the study indicates that as adverse, weather-related experiences rise, the gap in policy support between Republicans and Democrats will likely close.

“People may already link extreme weather events to climate change but not perceive themselves to be at risk or affected by those events,” said Sara Constantino, who led the research while a postdoctoral research associate at Princeton University’s Center for Policy Research on Energy and the Environment. “Experiencing an event could increase their worry and desire to engage in certain behaviors or support policies related to climate change.”

One key difference in the two crises is the speed at which they emerged. Compared to the spontaneous arrival of COVID-19, the full effects of climate change are slower to realize.

“The longer-term onset of climate change also means that individuals have been exposed to information - and partisan narratives - about climate change for much longer than COVID-19,” Constantino said. The study did not examine whether individuals attribute extreme weather to climate change. Research looking more closely into this question is forthcoming, says Constantino.

The implications of this study may shift how policymakers communicate about climate-related disasters. If victims of natural disasters are quicker to attribute extreme weather to climate change, support for such legislation may increase.

Moving forward, the researchers are running more targeted surveys in areas that vary in their risk, exposure, and history with extreme weather. Paired with information on partisan discourse and news coverage, this data would be ideal in measuring the relationship between individual experience and future policy support.


Personal hardship narrows the partisan gap in COVID-19 and climate change responses” was published on November 4, 2022 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The authors are Sara Constantino, Alicia Cooperman, Robert Keohane, and Elke Weber.