Anti-mask protesters outside the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on July 18, 2020. (Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)
Anti-mask protesters outside the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus on July 18, 2020. (Jeff Dean/AFP via Getty Images)

The COVID-19 outbreak has upended life across the United States and exposed growing divisions between supporters of the two major political parties. And when Americans are asked to describe in their own words how the outbreak has affected them negatively, no topic divides Democrats and Republicans more than the subject of masks, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of survey findings collected in late August and early September.

Overall, 14% of U.S. adults mentioned the word “mask” when asked how the pandemic has made their life difficult or challenging. That made “mask” the fourth most common term in these responses, behind “family” and “work” – each of which was mentioned by 19% of the public – and “friend,” mentioned by 14% of respondents.

For this analysis, we surveyed 9,220 U.S. adults between Aug. 31-Sept. 7, 2020. Everyone who completed the survey is a member of Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.

Respondents to the survey were asked to describe in their own words how their lives have been difficult or challenging since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. The Center used a variety of text processing procedures to clean the responses, correct for misspellings and reduce words to their root form (for example, “families” to “family”). Researchers then identified nearly 150 words and phrases that were used by at least 100 respondents and examined these keywords for patterns. The full methodology can be found here.

“Mask,” however, was the single most-used term among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, who were roughly twice as likely as Democrats and Democratic leaners to mention it in the context of negative effects from the outbreak (19% vs. 10%, respectively).

To gain further insights into these differences, researchers examined each of the nearly 1,000 open-ended responses that mentioned the term “mask.”

Republicans mention masks or mask wearing more often than Democrats when asked how COVID-19 pandemic has made their life difficult or challenging

Americans frequently brought up masks in their responses simply to complain about them in a general sense or to cite them as an example of how things have changed since the pandemic began. But a third of those who mentioned masks provided more detailed opinions on face coverings and safety precautions in general. These detailed opinions illuminate a clear divide between those who are skeptical of masks and those who are concerned about other people refusing to wear them.

Among the Americans who mentioned masks in their responses, 15% expressed frustration with other people not wearing them or refusing to follow safety precautions more generally; lamented the politicization of basic safety precautions; or expressed concern that some people were not taking the pandemic seriously.

These concerns were largely concentrated among Democrats. Some 31% of Democrats who brought up masks did so to complain or express concern about other people not wearing them. By comparison, just 5% of Republicans who brought up masks expressed this sentiment. Put differently, Democrats accounted for around three-quarters (76%) of those who expressed worry about others not using masks.

Quotes from Democrats expressing concern about others not wearing masks

(The responses below are lightly edited for spelling, style and readability.)

“Customers complaining about masks and not wearing them are both the biggest personal issues COVID has caused. The maskless customers are usually ruder than other people.” –Man, 24

“Having to be around people at work who don’t wear masks despite it being required by our governor. Feeling like I need to check the news about the virus only to be constantly reminded that Trump is actively trying to kill off Americans, incite violence, start a civil war, and become a fascist dictator and the corrupt GOP are actively allowing it to happen and the Dems aren’t doing enough to stop it. This country is falling apart and it’s extremely depressing and scary.” –Woman, 26

“I live in Missouri in a smaller town, less than 5K. Everyone thinks it’s made up, no one wears masks or social distances. […] I don’t feel safe or protected by my managers but I also can’t say anything because I need the job.” –Woman, 36

“I wear [a mask] for at least 8 hours a day along with a face shield, gloves and lab coat. I see approximately 100 patients a day and when I hear people complain about having to wear it for 20 minutes or those who refuse to wear it, I just have to scream silently inside.” –Woman, 59

“Some people who refuse to wear a mask. I am a believer in Jesus and to see other so-called Christians rebel against wearing a mask and calling COVID-19 a hoax is depressing. And discouraging to find out what really is in their hearts. It’s all about their rights only.” –Woman, 68

“I have chronic asthma so I am fearful of being exposed to the coronavirus. It makes me extremely angry to go out and see people not wearing masks or keeping social distance. And my intense dislike of Trump has grown because he lies about the coronavirus and there is blood on his hands. His lack of telling the truth about the coronavirus and his attempt to use the public health systems of the U.S. for his own political ends are the equivalent of murdering thousands of people.” –Man, 73

On the other hand, nearly one-in-five of all respondents who mentioned the word “mask” (18%) specifically called masks unnecessary, ineffective, oppressive or unfair; stated that they refuse to wear masks; expressed skepticism about the COVID-19 pandemic in general; or expressed a belief that the pandemic is being used to manipulate Americans for political gain.

These responses were far more common from Republicans: 27% of all mask mentions by Republicans expressed such views, compared with just 3% among Democrats who brought up masks. Looked at another way, Republicans accounted for 92% of those expressing skepticism or opposition to masks.

Quotes from Republicans expressing skepticism about masks

“Forced to wear masks for a virus that killed less than 10,000 people, I am more likely to be murdered in Kansas City than catch COVID there.” –Man, 28

“The entire unnecessary shutdown of the country got my husband furloughed for 9 weeks, more government overreach with mask orders, people are just so terrified to live it’s disgusting, so the ones of us like me who aren’t scared get treated like we are awful people” –Woman, 31

“Being forced to wear a completely useless mask when going into businesses. I have bad allergies and can’t breathe well. The CDC has reported that the masks are useless, which to me indicates they are virtue signaling items and are being used to control people.” –Woman, 70

“The total and arbitrary violation of our civil rights by stooge governors (Whitmer, Cuomo, Newsom). The frustration of listening to little Fauci who has been wrong on almost everything. The dishonesty of the media to accurately report. I refused lockdown, I refuse masks, I refuse to participate in any of this bogus crap.” –Man, 60

“I really do think this outbreak is not a big deal. We have more people dying from the flu, heart disease, overdoses, car accidents, suicides. I really believe it is a government control thing to see how far they can push us. I am here to tell you! The American veteran will not stand by and let government take away our rights!!! If they are looking for a civil war they will get one. Don’t mess with the 1st and 2nd Amendment.” –Man, 67

“Masks! Being told to wear one even though we all learned in Microbiology 101 that they don’t work. I’m heartsick that kids can’t go to school. I’m disgusted with people who wear masks outside when exercising. I loathe the lying mainstream media even more for their negative influence on media.” –Woman, 72

Since answers to open-ended survey questions can be wide-ranging and varied in length, any specific keyword or topic typically only appears in a minority of responses. Overall, just 5% of Republicans expressed skepticism of masks and only 3% of Democrats brought up concerns about others not wearing them.

Still, the hundreds of responses from Republicans and Democrats that did express these views highlight a growing divide among partisans about coronavirus-related restrictions and safety measures. In June, 77% of Democrats – compared with 45% of Republicans – said they were very or somewhat concerned that they might unknowingly spread COVID-19 to others. And nearly two-thirds of Democrats (64%) were very or somewhat concerned that they would personally get COVID-19 and require hospitalization, while just 35% of Republicans expressed the same concern. In the same survey, Democrats were about twice as likely as Republicans to say that people in their community should always wear a mask (63% vs. 29%).

At the same time, the Center has also found that majorities in both parties say they are making regular use of masks, even if some may be skeptical about their effectiveness. In August, 92% of Democrats and 76% of Republicans said that they had worn a mask or face covering when in stores or other businesses most or all of the time during the prior month.

Note: Here is the methodology for this post.

Patrick van Kessel  is a senior data scientist at Pew Research Center.
Dennis Quinn  is a computational social scientist focusing on data science at Pew Research Center.