Know anyone who has had the coronavirus?

This simple question, more than six months into the pandemic, may turn out to be the key to what’s driving politics this year, and could powerfully swing the upcoming elections.

Pollsters have been asking it in Washington state and around the nation lately, and the results say a lot about empathy and what drives people’s voting choices (particularly among the group that’s likely to prove most pivotal in this election, women).

This past week, pollsters at Seattle consulting firm Strategies 360 put out the first post-primary political reading on our state, for KOMO 4. It had no real campaign surprises, finding Democrats such as Gov. Jay Inslee and presidential candidate Joe Biden winning our blue state handily.

Mostly overlooked though were two follow-up questions: Have you been diagnosed with COVID-19? Or has someone you know had COVID-19?

Only 2% answered yes to the first — a result that roughly matches the state infection rate that the CDC has estimated in serology studies for Washington.

But 47%, or roughly half, say they do know someone who has been infected. And this group could hardly be more different, in their views on the pandemic and on politics right now, than the 49% who say they don’t know anyone who has had COVID-19 (the other 4%t answered “not sure”).

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Example: The biggest issue with Jay Inslee in this election is whether you think he’s handled the coronavirus crisis well. Has he met the moment? Or has he overreacted, stifling the state with obsessive and sometimes confusing restrictions?

Well, when you ask people who know someone who caught coronavirus, Inslee’s got a huge 30-percentage point lead. It’s only a 3-point lead, basically a tie, among those who don’t.

This gap is even wider when it comes to Donald Trump. When asked whether they approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic, the group that knows someone diagnosed with COVID-19 gives him the thumbs down by a landslide 48-point margin. But among the half of the state that doesn’t know any COVID-19 sufferers, Trump’s disapproval margin is only minus seven.

These same sorts of results show up in national polls, though they’re not as dramatic. An Economist poll released Wednesday found Joe Biden with a big lead among the 40% of the country touched directly by COVID-19 (meaning they have a relative or a close friend who has had the disease, or they themselves have had it). But Trump has a slight advantage among the rest. All told it adds up to a 7-point margin for Biden.

Now some of this is doubtless explainable by geography and demographics. Voters in some rural areas are probably less likely to have brushed against the coronavirus than city dwellers, and were already predisposed to like Trump or disapprove of Inslee before COVID-19 came to town.

But the coronavirus has slowly worked its way into all parts of America. In the poll of our state, 47% of Eastern Washington registered voters reported knowing someone who has contracted COVID-19; the figure is 58% in King County. These numbers are not that different — not enough to account for the huge disparities in political attitudes between those who have experienced coronavirus personally, and those who haven’t.

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We’ve heard all about the gender gap in politics. Call this the coronavirus gap, or maybe an empathy gap. The pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 Americans but which at the same time has not ripped through society in any sweeping visible way, is proving to be a mass real-time case study in whether we can sympathize or empathize with the other.

The gap is kind of easy to understand: If we’re six months into a global pandemic and you don’t yet know anyone affected by it, then how bad can it be? It might make the lockdowns and mask mandates and the like that much more vexing.

It’s revealing, though, that these polls also show the largest gender gaps I’ve ever seen. Men are roughly split on Inslee’s performance on the pandemic, with 49 to 44% approval. But women approve of his cautious, mask-wearing approach by 42 points, 68 to 26%. As a result, Inslee is incredibly losing right now among the men of the state to his little-known GOP opponent, small-town Republic police Chief Loren Culp, by 2 points overall. But he’s dominating among female voters by an unprecedented 33 percentage points.

Gender splits in politics typically are 10 points, not 30! I’ve written before about how this health care crisis elicits a different set of emotional responses than did more stereotypically “masculine” crises like wars. And so the coronavirus may be polarizing the electorate even more than usual along gender lines.

Empathy has long been a political selling point. Bill Clinton felt our pain, George W. Bush was the compassionate conservative. It’s been way out of style in our hard-nosed, partisan politics recently, though.

Maybe the story of 2020 is that it’s making a quiet comeback, sparked by an invisible scourge and then propelled by women, in this year to otherwise forget.