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NH residents trust science, state response more than federal

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 5/7/2020 2:55:00 PM
Modified: 5/7/2020 2:54:48 PM

New Hampshire residents have more confidence in the state government and scientific organizations to respond to the pandemic than they do in the federal government’s response, according to polls from the University of New Hampshire.

That could shape how people in the state behave as the government begins relaxing the economic shutdown despite scientists’ warnings that easing social distancing could cause an increase in new coronavirus cases, said Lawrence Hamilton, professor of sociology and senior fellow in the Carsey School of Public Policy at UNH.

“It’s literally life and death in this case,” said Hamilton, who authored the survey along with Thomas Safford, associate professor and fellow in the Carsey School of Public Policy.

People who trust in the federal government are more likely to go to restaurants or salons as the economy reopens, while people who are more confident in scientists will likely continue social distancing.

“You’re likely to see one group not moving very much and the other group moving very quickly,” Hamilton said.

The initial survey contacted 650 residents between March 17 and March 26, the day the governor’s stay-at-home order took effect. At that point, 77% of people said they were making major changes to their routines. The same number said they trusted science agencies like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to respond to the pandemic, but only 46% were confident in the federal government’s ability to respond.

When the survey was repeated with 1,155 residents between April 16 and 20, attitudes were mostly the same: 79% of people reported making major changes to their lives, and 72% said they trusted science agencies. In April, 47% of people were confident in the federal government’s response.

The slight dip in people who are confident in scientists’s ability could be explained by early errors by the CDC in regards to testing, Hamilton said. Still, “trust in science is pretty overwhelming,” he said.

Overall, there was little change in perspective between March and April.

“The world had changed during that time. The pandemic had advanced significantly. But these are not significant changes,” Hamilton said.

That is likely because people’s confidence in the government or scientists is deeply rooted and closely linked to their socio-political identities, Hamilton said. It’s not likely to change based on recent events.

“There has been for a long time a socio-political division regarding science,” Hamilton said. The most well-known example is around climate change, but the culture of skepticism toward science reaches further than that one issue, he said.

“A lot of the attitudes that were developed in the rejection of science in regards to climate change transferred,” Hamilton said. “There’s been a long history of scientists warning that something like this may happen, but people rejecting those warnings and hollowing out the infrastructure that could have been deployed against COVID-19.”

Mistrust of science falls along political party lines, both nationally and in New Hampshire.

“Across a wide range of issues from climate change and evolution to nuclear power safety and vaccines, liberals and moderates are more likely than conservatives to say they trust scientists for information. The most conservative are least likely to trust scientists,” Hamilton said.

In New Hampshire, opinions about the federal response to coronavirus are strong: 56% of people polled in March strongly or somewhat disapprove of President Trump’s handling of the pandemic, while 40% strongly or somewhat approve. Only 4% of respondents said they lean toward approval or disapproval or were neutral.

“It’s completely hollowed out, with everyone at two extremes: strongly approve or disapproving,” Hamilton said. “It’s polarized.”

Support for Gov. Sununu’s response to the pandemic is much higher: 67% of people polled in March strongly or somewhat approved of his handling.

The trend of having more confidence in state government is reflected nationally, Hamilton said.

“Our New Hampshire results are consistent with what pollsters are finding now in many other states.”


These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.

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