The Politics of Consumerism and COVID-19

Recently my colleagues from the Broad College of Business at Michigan State University and I were discussing the coronavirus’ impact on consumer spending. We were curious how the shutdowns would impact the economy and how consumer attitudes and beliefs might shape spending in the months to come.

So, as self-described data geeks, we set out to find some answers. Here’s what we discovered.

Few respondents have been able to escape the economic impacts of the coronavirus

At the time of surveying (early May), nearly all respondents (95%) were under lockdown orders, and 16% had been laid off, furloughed, or were unemployed. Nearly 42% reported that their income had decreased since the pandemic began.

Furthermore, about 78% were working from home, compared to 37% before the pandemic.

Republicans express greater anxiety, stress, and powerlessness than Democrats

Specifically:

  • 38% of Republicans reported being either “quite a bit” or “extremely” anxious, compared to 29% of Democrats
  • 41% of Republicans reported being either “quite a bit” or “extremely” stressed, compared to 32% of Democrats
  • 37% of Republicans reported feeling either “quite a bit” or “extremely” powerless, compared to 28% of Democrats

Furthermore, when asked how much they agree with the statement “I am very afraid to die of COVID-19,” 56% of Republicans somewhat or strongly agreed, compared to 53% of Democrats.

Yet, Republicans are more optimistic about the future

Although they’re more negatively impacted emotionally, Republicans express greater positivity about the future.

While 34% of Democrats reported being either “quite a bit” or “extremely” hopeful, this number leapt to 49% among Republicans. Similarly, only 40% of Democrats reported being either “quite a bit” or “extremely” optimistic, compared to 50% of Republicans.

Republicans more likely to jumpstart the economy post-pandemic

How do these attitudes translate into consumer behavior and spending? To find out, we asked respondents what they would spend the money on were they to receive $1,000 “unexpectedly.”

Democrats told us they would put just over half ($514) into savings or paying down debts and bills. Republicans said they would use nearly two thirds ($613) for purchases and spending.

ACSI-covidpolitics-1000

Next, we asked each respondent the first thing they plan to “buy or do” when the pandemic begins to slow or ends. Responses were open-ended and therefore varied, but the two most common goods mentioned by Democrats were “restaurant” and “vacation.”  By contrast, the two most common goods mentioned by Republicans were “food” and “clothes.”

Breaking spending habits down further, our data reveal Republicans appear eager to spend more than Democrats on:

  • household items (39% vs. 29%)
  • health and personal care items (36% vs. 23%)
  • food to consume at home (39% vs. 30%)
  • utilities (32% vs. 21%)
  • telecommunication goods (33% vs. 21%)
  • luxury goods, like jewelry and electronics (44% vs. 28%)

Members of the two parties share some common ground, though. Republicans and Democrats expect to spend at roughly equal levels on restaurants and bars, clothing and apparel, travel and leisure, and entertainment and events (concerts, sports events).

ACSI-covidpolitics-spending

Political partisanship helps explain both how consumers are feeling during the pandemic and how they plan to behave after it

With local economies just now starting to open back up, a lot can certainly change. But current indications are that while politicized consumerism does exist, it’ll be less active in industries like restaurants. This could bode well for local establishments looking to regain their clientele as restrictions are lifted.

As the months progress, we plan to survey the same respondents to gauge changes in attitudes and spending behavior. We’ll report back on our findings.

Our methodology

In early May 2020, we collected data from a nationwide sample of 1,151 American consumers (margin of error = +/- 3%). The sample was roughly balanced between male (48%) and female (52%) respondents. About 74% of the sample identified their race as white. More than half (55%) have household income of $60,000 or less per year. Fifty-four percent are married and 38% are either single (never married) or divorced.

Special thanks to my colleagues, Ayalla A. Ruvio, PhD and G. Tomas M. Hult, PhD, who assisted in the research.