After months of belittling or opposing the use of masks against the novel coronavirus, Republican politicians are coming around. Even President Donald Trump, who has scorned masks, now promotes them in scripted briefings. Instead, Trump and his proteges have drawn a new line: They’re against requiring people to wear face coverings. “I want people to have a certain freedom,” Trump argued in a Fox News interview on July 19. But one important constituency disagrees with Trump’s position: Republican voters.
Public opinion within the GOP has shifted in favor of masks. In a Navigator survey taken in late May, Republican voters said they were “pro-mask,” not “anti-mask,” by a margin of 24 percentage points. By July, that margin had grown to 38 points. In the May survey, 24 percent of Republicans said they generally didn’t wear masks; by July, that number was down to 13 percent. The July Navigator survey also asked voters to choose between two statements: that “there is too much shaming of people for not wearing masks” or that “people who don’t wear masks in public places are putting others at risk and deserve to be called out.” Most Republicans chose the latter statement.
Republicans don’t just support masks. They support mask mandates. Two weeks ago, in an AP/NORC poll, a two-to-one Republican majority (58 percent to 27 percent) endorsed “requiring Americans to wear face masks when they’re around other people outside their homes.” Seventy percent of Republicans said that as schools reopened, “requiring all students and staff [to] wear face masks” was essential or important. In a Yahoo News poll released on Friday, 57 percent of Republicans said it should be “mandatory to wear a mask in public,” and 65 percent said it should be mandatory to do so in “states with large numbers of new COVID-19 cases.”
If you’re a member of Congress, you might assume that opposing a federal mandate, as opposed to state or local mandates, is the safe position in the GOP. But you’d be mistaken. In a mid-July Fox News poll, 55 percent of Republican voters said “the federal government” should announce “a national mask-wearing order for indoor spaces.” Last week, in a Harvard CAPS/Harris survey, two-thirds of Republican voters endorsed “a national mandate making it mandatory to wear masks in public to fight the coronavirus pandemic.”
You might assume that opposing a federal mandate, as opposed to state or local mandates, is the safe position within the GOP. But you’d be mistaken.
This support for mandates is more than symbolic. Republicans say they’re willing to enforce such orders with fines or incarceration. In a Politico/Morning Consult poll taken two weeks ago, 58 percent of Republican voters said their own states should impose a “mask mandate in public spaces, where not wearing a mask could be punishable by fine or jail time.” In the Harvard/Harris survey, 57 percent of Republicans endorsed “local governments imposing fees for anyone who does not wear masks in public spaces.”
Even Trump fans—who are generally more hostile to masks than Republicans as a whole are—tend to favor mask mandates. In the Fox News poll, most voters who approved of Trump’s job performance backed a national order requiring masks indoors. In the Morning Consult poll, most Trump approvers endorsed a mask mandate punishable by fines or jail. In the Harvard/Harris poll, most voters who said they had cast ballots for Trump in 2016 supported “local governments imposing fees for anyone who does not wear masks in public spaces.” In the Yahoo News poll, 59 percent of people who said they would vote for Trump in 2020 agreed that “states with large numbers of new COVID-19 cases” should “require masks to be worn in public places.”
State surveys show the same pattern. Two weeks ago, in a Quinnipiac poll of Texas, 64 percent of Republicans endorsed “Gov. [Greg] Abbott’s order that requires most people in Texas to wear a face mask in public at this time.” In Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has refused to issue such an order, 60 percent of Republicans said “people in Florida should be required to wear face masks in public.” In Georgia, where Gov. Brian Kemp has sued local officials to stop them from requiring masks, 68 percent of Republicans favored “requiring people to wear face masks when they come within six feet of others in public places indoors.”
Republican acceptance of mask orders isn’t unlimited. The Georgia poll, taken by Monmouth University, asked a separate question about an outdoor ban “requiring people to wear face masks when they come within six feet of others in public places outdoors.” Republicans opposed that idea, 52 percent to 40 percent. But whites narrowly supported it, as did voters in Trump counties, and Georgia voters as a whole backed it by 30 percentage points. Likewise, in the earliest July poll on mask mandates, 56 percent of Republicans rejected the proposition that “everyone should be required to wear face masks in public.” But by every other measure, the voters on whom Republican politicians rely—whites, white men, white non-college voters, and rural voters—endorsed that proposition.
Masks are good. They significantly reduce transmission of the virus. And because they prevent the wearer from infecting others—as opposed to protecting the wearer from an infection he or she might otherwise choose to risk—they should be required. But if that argument doesn’t persuade your governor, your senators, or your state representatives to support a mandate, show them the polls. If they aren’t moved to protect others, maybe they’ll do it to protect themselves.
Slate is covering the election issues that matter to you. Support our work with a Slate Plus membership. You’ll also get a suite of great benefits.
Join Slate Plus