Sports rivalry-style animosity manifests in election year politics, reaction to coronavirus pandemic response

Sports fanaticism

David Ortiz was a Yankee killer. The Boston Red Sox slugger’s batting statistics against the New York Yankees (.307 batting average, 171 runs batted in over 884 lifetime at-bats) were nothing short of crushing to me as one of the proud and few Yankees fans surrounded by the denizens of Red Sox Nation in Vermont. I grew up on Long Island, New York, and learned very early that my love for the Yankees was also defined by my hatred of the Red Sox. I found pleasure in the Sox’s pain — Bill Buckner’s game-blowing crucial error against the Mets in the 1986 World Series is one of my favorite baseball memories, even in the face of countless Yankees team and player achievements. I am, after all, a fanatic about baseball and the Yanks-Sox rivalry in particular.

Americans are becoming more rabidly partisan, insofar as their political identities are shaped not by support for the party to which they lean as much as their contempt for the “other” party.

But while investing time, heart, and mind into America’s pastime is an escape in a fantasy world and a luxury I can thankfully afford, political scientists are signaling degrees of fanaticism in U.S. politics not unlike what we find in the most intense and heated sports rivalries that give pause for concern about “real world” consequences.

Partisanship and COVID-19

U.S. politics are increasingly moving toward becoming a spectator sport, complete with defining political attitudes, values, beliefs and behavior as intense as a sports rivalry — Democratic and Republican identifiers are the Yankees and Red Sox fans of politics. This partisan fanaticism has a label: political scientists call it “negative partisanship.”

Negative partisanship

In political science circles, the model of negative partisanship has been gaining traction as a way to predict electoral success and describe trends in political party identification. According to Abramowitz and Weber (2016, 2018), while partisan identification has been on the decline, Americans are becoming more rabidly partisan, insofar as their political identities are shaped not by support for the party to which they lean as much as their contempt for the “other” party.

Dr. Jason F. Jagemann

Using data from the American National Election Studies, Abramowitz and Weber show that feelings about the Democrats and Republicans have become increasingly negative, partisan defections during elections are very low, ticket-splitting has decreased and party identification explains vote choice higher than at any time in the modern era — at least since the 1950s, when social scientists formalized generalizable polling instruments.

Further, polling data over time show the trend of presidents enjoying much less support from opposing partisans compared with the 1950s to 1970s, where presidents during this time could count on as much as 40% approval ratings from party identifiers on the other side of the aisle. The classic model of electoral success being predicated on party defection and courting independents is eclipsed by the highly predictive negative partisanship model where mobilizing strong partisans to turn out to vote will win the day. To put it simply: Democrats and Republicans like each other much less than they once did and there are electoral consequences at play.

Creating echo chambers

The role and proliferation of cable/Internet news and social media compounds the intensification of negative partisanship. People seek sources that confirm their preconceived notions about politics and can create social media echo chambers, where newsfeeds, posts, and memes reflect the polarization of views – only Yankees fan pages that blast the Red Sox and pro-Republican pages that excoriate the Democrats. And scholars (e.g., Marin and Yurukoglu 2017) have found that the partisan filters through which Americans are more prone to customize partisan consumption of news shape political behavior in ways that push the partisan divide and negative evaluation of the other party even farther apart.

But surely in these times of the global pandemic, Americans are “rallying ’round the flag” and showing at least short-term support for opposing partisan political elites (especially the president), casting partisan lenses aside? Does the COVID-19 pandemic militate against negative partisanship or do we find more evidence of the toxicity of partisanship? reported that the latest polling figures, published April 14, show that about 86% of Republican identifiers approve of the way President Donald Trump is handling the coronavirus outbreak while about 82% of Democrats oppose his handling of the outbreak (about 43% of independents registered their approval). Since public approval data was compiled on the president’s response to the coronavirus (dated Feb. 16), Republicans’ approval and Democrats’ disapproval have climbed slowly but steadily. 

The partisan divide has cascaded into partisan differences in views of how seriously Democrats and Republicans view the coronavirus.

The partisan divide has cascaded into partisan differences in views of how seriously Democrats and Republicans view the coronavirus. A Pew Research Center study published April 2 found that about 78% of Democrats and Democratic leaners indicated that the outbreak is a major threat to the health of the U.S. population as whole while 52% of Republicans and Republican leaners shared that view. Even further, the Pew study found that Democrats and Republicans differ significantly on viewing certain restrictions as a necessary step to curb the spread of the virus such as postponing state primaries, limiting gathering of more than 10 people, limiting restaurants to carry-out only, and requiring most businesses to close, with Democrats being more supportive than Republicans.

While COVID-19 knows no partisan bounds, political reaction and behavior around it is seemingly linked to the now classic blue-versus-red, Democrat-versus-Republican partisan narrative we have come to expect. Without further study on individual views, as it is an ecological fallacy to infer individual behavior from aggregate data, the seeds of negative partisanship have already been planted and I’d hypothesize that the global pandemic will continue to foment negative partisanship.

After all, why root for the other team when you despise everything they do anyway?

Dr. Jason F. Jagemann is an associate professor of political science at Norwich University and coordinator of its Political Science Program.

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