In the last few weeks, the leaders of practically every country I've looked at have seen their approval ratings improve significantly. An obvious conclusion to draw is that this is due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

To give a few examples, President Trump's approval rating has jumped 5 points to an all-time high, and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's approval rating has improved by 12 points since the December general election, while his Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has seen his net popularity soar from -6 to +49.

In mainland Europe, President Macron's approval rating has improved to a two-year high and german national voting intention polls have shown an increase of 4% in the last fortnight for Chancellor Merkel's CDU party.

I am reminded also of the effect of the 9/11 attacks, which saw President Bush's approval rating soar from 51% to 90%.

Has any research been undertaken which explores the effects of national or international crises on leaders' popularity? Is there some sense of need for national unity that is evoked?

  • 5
    This is likely the Rally 'round the flag effect, but since it isn't an external threat, that may not be as relevant. That'd be a good starting point for any research on the subject, though.
    – Bobson
    Mar 26, 2020 at 14:07
  • 1
    The question is how big a bump and how long it lasts. Nate Silver discussed this some on 538, which might be a good place to start
    – divibisan
    Mar 26, 2020 at 14:59
  • One interesting fact I've seen mentioned by Krugman is that during the 1918-1919 influenza the US stock market soared instead of sinking like now. But I haven't seen any mention of leaders' approval ratings back then. The polling was almost certainly nowhere near as "aggressive" (i.e. done as often) as it is nowadays.
    – Fizz
    Apr 3, 2020 at 7:56
  • Interestingly enough, South Korea's president just did rather well from covid. Guess that happens when you actually do a good job, as opposed to saying you did the greatest job ever. Apr 23, 2020 at 3:09

1 Answer 1


Yes, there is a whole lot of relevant research. Crisis doesn't automatically help approval ratings, especially if it's not handled well, but it typically does. There are various complex theories about why and when and which variables matter.

This study covering 1950–1985 shows that US presidents got an average overall approval boost of 1.4% in times of international crisis, which is something, but not much. A lot may depend on media coverage: "When a major response is reported in the headlines, the rally is more than 8 percentage points greater, ceteris paribus, than when it is not reported on the front page."

Here is another study of US presidents approval ratings during international crises ("The Political Costs of Crisis Bargaining: Presidential Rhetoric and the Role of Party"). It finds that voter approval in times of crisis "varies widely depending on attributes of and choices made by the president and the domestic political context."

Here is an international comparative study about the 2007-2008 economic crisis ("Prime Ministerial Rhetoric and Recession Politics: Meaning Making in Economic Crisis Management"). It suggests that how leaders talk about the crisis may matter a lot to their short-term approval ratings.

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