Article Text

Is health politically irrelevant? Experimental evidence during a global pandemic
  1. Arnab Acharya1,
  2. John Gerring2,
  3. Aaron Reeves3
  1. 1Independent Researcher, Washington, DC, UK
  2. 2University of Texas, Austin, Texas, USA
  3. 3Department of Social Policy and Intervention, University of Oxford, Oxford, Oxfordshire, UK
  1. Correspondence to Dr Aaron Reeves; aaron.reeves{at}


Objective To investigate how health issues affect voting behaviour by considering the COVID-19 pandemic, which offers a unique opportunity to examine this interplay.

Design We employ a survey experiment in which treatment groups are exposed to key facts about the pandemic, followed by questions intended to elicit attitudes toward the incumbent party and government responsibility for the pandemic.

Setting The survey was conducted amid the lockdown period of 15–26 April 2020 in three large democratic countries with the common governing language of English: India, the United Kingdom and the United States. Due to limitations on travel and recruitment, subjects were recruited through the M-Turk internet platform and the survey was administered entirely online. Respondents numbered 3648.

Results Our expectation was that respondents in the treatment groups would favour, or disfavour, the incumbent and assign blame to government for the pandemic compared with the control group. We observe no such results. Several reasons may be adduced for this null finding. One reason could be that public health is not viewed as a political issue. However, people do think health is an important policy area (>85% agree) and that government has some responsibility for health (>90% agree). Another reason could be that people view public health policies through partisan lenses, which means that health is largely endogenous, and yet we find little evidence of polarisation in our data. Alternatively, it could be that the global nature of the pandemic inoculated politicians from blame and yet a majority of people do think the government is to blame for the spread of the pandemic (~50% agree).

Conclusions While we cannot precisely determine the mechanisms at work, the null findings contained in this study suggest that politicians are unlikely to be punished or rewarded for their failures or successes in managing COVID-19 in the next election.

Trial registration Initial research hypotheses centred on expected variation between two treatments, as set forth in a detailed pre-analysis plan, registered at E-Gap: Finding no difference between the treatments, we decided to focus this paper on the treatment/control comparison. Importantly, results that follow the pre-analysis plan strictly are entirely consistent with results presented here: null findings obtained throughout.

  • public health
  • health policy
  • individual randomized trial

This is an open access article distributed in accordance with the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 Unported (CC BY 4.0) license, which permits others to copy, redistribute, remix, transform and build upon this work for any purpose, provided the original work is properly cited, a link to the licence is given, and indication of whether changes were made. See:

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  • Contributors JG, AR, AA initiated the project, designed the experiments, analysed the data, interpreted the results, and wrote the text.

  • Funding AR acknowledges funding from the European Research Council (849960 – CHANGINGELITES) and the Wellcome Trust (220206/Z/20/Z).

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient and public involvement Patients and/or the public were not involved in the design, or conduct, or reporting, or dissemination plans of this research.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Data availability statement Data are available in a public, open access repository ( or on request.