How The Pandemic May Be Making Political Bubbles Worse

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Televisions play election coverage at a watch party for President Donald Trump in Weymouth. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)
Televisions play election coverage at a watch party for President Donald Trump in Weymouth. (Joe Difazio for WBUR)

Like a lot of us, Dustin Voss isn't getting out much these days.

"There really isn't a social circle right now because everybody's still at home," said Voss, a newlywed in Central Massachusetts. "You know, we leave to get groceries, and my wife and I haven't had dinner outside of our house since March."

Voss voted for President Trump and, when he did venture out in the months before Election Day, he got the impression that the president would not merely win a second term but maybe even become the first Republican since Ronald Reagan to earn a victory in Massachusetts.

"I honestly thought that there was a possibility that Massachusetts could have turned red because of what I physically saw," Voss said. "I mean, there are Trump flags everywhere. If you look at Facebook groups online, there's a large, large following of people for Trump in Massachusetts."

There is, but social media doesn't always reflect the full picture, and neither, it turns out, do lawn signs. As for all those Trump flags: Voss lives in Templeton, which went for the president but was not representative of the state.

The still-contested presidential election may have reinforced political divisions, but some Massachusetts voters with very different views do have something in common: As they watch the results come in, they're surprised the race is so close.

That could be because of the bubble effect. Surrounded by like-minded people, some voters got a false sense of their candidate's popularity. This isn't a new phenomenon, but the coronavirus pandemic may be making it worse.

"I think it is reasonable to assume that as you move inward in people's social circles, they will tend to have more people who are like them," said Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth who studies voters' misconceptions.

While there is no scientific study that proves the pandemic has kept people in political echo chambers, Nyhan said there can be consequences when people reduce their exposure to coworkers, casual friends and distant relatives who may think differently — as many are, in the time of social distancing.

"That could affect how people perceive the campaign," he said.

In Salem, Nancy Davidowicz and her fellow Biden voters outnumbered Trump voters more than 3 to 1 this year. She figured the president wouldn't come close to getting one-third of the vote in Massachusetts, as he did in 2016, "because he can't stay off of Twitter, and his promises are false, and he lies."

"I think people in Massachusetts are smart," she added, "and I just didn't think he'd get any — [I thought] he'd get less support than he did four years ago."

That's also what Amy Sullivan anticipated. She lives in Waltham, where support for Biden exceeded 70%, and she thought the rest of the state — and much of the country — would reject the president with similar force.

"That was what I expected, and I'm disappointed that that's not where the head of the country is," Sullivan said. "It's shocking to me that he could get 70 million people to vote for him. Like, were they asleep for the last four years?"

In case you're wondering where the numbers actually ended up in Massachusetts: Trump's level of support was almost identical to what it was four years ago.

Voters' misperceptions wouldn't be a big deal, except they can shake confidence in election integrity. In the case of Voss, the Trump supporter from Templeton, the returns are so different from what he expected that he can't help wondering whether they're legit — especially as the president makes baseless claims about election fraud.

"You start to get into the whole — the craziness of some of the stuff that you hear online, some of the crazy stories that could never be true," he said. "And you start to think, 'OK, maybe that is true.' I don't ever want to think like that. I think that the numbers were really there."

This segment aired on November 6, 2020.


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Callum Borchers Reporter
Callum covered the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.



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