From the outside it appears that the coronavirus (CoViD-19) outbreak has caught the USA off guard and that it's been handled quite poorly to date. So my assumption is that this would have a negative effect on what people think about Donald Trump; however, it appears his popularity does not seem to follow a typical set of expectations, so I'd like a more objective assessment of how it's affected the public perception of him.
Trump has never had better ratings - but that's not the whole story.
This analysis from the CBC shows a fuller picture.
Donald Trump has the highest approval ratings since the first few weeks of his presidency.
a 47% approval rating
However he has also had the lowest approval ratings of any president on average, never once having had an approval rate of more than 50%, and averaging around 43%. The last few weeks is the first time since March 2017 his approval has been higher than his disapproval.
Also all leaders have been polling better in this crisis, and most have been polling much higher than Trump . In a Fox News poll:
Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Health; local officials got 75 per cent; state governments 74 per cent; Vice-President Mike Pence 55 per cent; and Trump 51 per cent.
The federal and provincial governments in Canada are getting high marks for their handling of the crisis, with approval ratings mainly in the 60s...France's unpopular president, Emmanuel Macron, has gotten a bounce, with polls showing him gaining as much as 14 per cent during the crisis. Italy's governing party is polling better, too.
A high approval in a crisis does not mean re-election.
Take George H.W. Bush, who had an approval rating around 90 per cent after winning the first Gulf War in 1991 but lost re-election the following year. A soft economy quickly pulled his Gallup approval down as low as 29 per cent.
According to US media, they're actually rising:
Yet Trump’s approval ratings — an important gauge of his re-election chances a bit over seven months away — are staying strong, by some counts even reaching highs for his tenure.
Though whether this has permanent effects in the long term and on Trump's popularity in the U.S. overall remains to be seen.
A more objective source show's Trump's approval rating increasing over the past few months.
It is typical that US presidents enjoy a boost in approval ratings at the beginning of any national crisis.
- HW Bush saw a 35 point boost through the beginning of the Gulf War
- Clinton had no major crises in his administration, so his approval rating was comparatively steady (only spiking, ironically, during his impeachment)
- W Bush saw a 40 point spike in approval after 9/11, and a 15 point spike during the invasion of Iraq in 2003
- Obama began his administration with an extraordinarily high approval rating, due to the ongoing sub-prime loan crisis, and saw another spike of about 15 points after the death of bin Laden in 2011 and through the national elections
I imagine this is a normal human tendency: in times of crisis people look to leadership for reassurance and strength, and thus are less inclined to quibble over policy differences and more inclined to put their trust in leadership. Trump's 5 point bump since the beginning of this crisis is comparatively small, and could have been much higher had he not ceded authoritative decision-making to state governors. But Trump has always had a different set of priorities.
The real litmus test will occur after the heat of the crisis has passed, and citizens return to a normal, critical assessment of their leaders. HW Bush's approval ratings fell steadily as the the gulf war wore on, because people stopped viewing the war through the lens of crisis and turned to worry about a variety of domestic and economic problems; W Bush's approval rating followed the same pattern, but far more precipitously, both because he allowed the foreign war to drag on interminably and because the economy collapsed entirely under the financial industry's malfeasance (brought on by deregulation policies that Bush himself fostered). By contrast, Clinton's approval ratings remained steady to the end of his term, and Obama's continued to rise.
I tend to put this down to the impression that both Clinton and Obama showed strong leadership qualities in 'normal' (non-crisis) contexts, whereas the elder Bush focused too heavily on foreign military matters and the younger Bush merely mismanaged the office of the presidency, shifting too much responsibility off to Cheney and other high-ranking party members. To repurpose Lincoln's old adage, most men can show nobility under adversity, but it takes character to resist the lure of power in normal times. In that regard, I expect Trump's 5 point approval bump will evaporate by the end of the coronavirus crisis (though it may rise slightly in the meantime), and I expect it to drop in proportion to the final death count of the pandemic, particularly as it spreads through red states and takes its toll there.
We’re Likely Seeing a ‘Rally Around The Flag’ Effect
Nate Silver had a nice discussion of this here. The take home is that yes, Trump’s approval ratings are up right now, but this can likely be put down to a ‘rally around the flag’ effect where, in a crisis, leaders generally poll higher. This is a global phenomenon.
However, due to the economic fallout this likely won’t translate into any meaningful momentum heading into the Presidential election. In fact, the economic fallout from COVID-19 will likely hurt his re-election chances.
The Effect May Not Last...
My current thinking is this: It’s known that Trump’s election was largely powered by a rural-urban divide, especially in swing states. Coincidentally, urban centers are also the most likely to be experiencing fallout from the pandemic now because they are among the first regions to have serious spikes in infections. This is due to their density and their tendency to function as hubs of global and regional commerce (look no further than New York). But this likely won’t last.
I think it’s plausible that in a month or so, once red states start being more seriously impacted (as we’re starting to see in Louisiana, for example), the relatively paltry ‘rally around the flag’ effect may be entirely abrogated by the economic fallout affecting the strongholds of Trump’s base. It’s also possible that many people will know someone or have a loved one who got sick or died from the disease, which may lead them to re-evaluate the uninformed claims Trump made dismissing the seriousness of the disease, particularly at the beginning of the epidemic in the U.S.
Further, the impact of the epidemic may even be proportionally exacerbated in red states due to what appears to be the comparatively lax uptake of social distancing measures among conservative voters.
Here’s the relevant quote:
In response to every question about whether a respondent would change plans that would expose them to others, like travel, eating out at restaurants, and attending large gatherings, Democratic voters consistently responded affirmatively at much higher rates than Republicans. For example, 61 percent of Democrats said they’ve stopped or plan to stop attending large public gatherings, but only 30 percent of Republicans said the same.
Of course, the above logic assumes that 1. The economic fallout will be attributed (partially) to Trump’s lack of leadership during the pandemic and 2. That any disinformation and inaction that leads to the preventable death of a loved one would be looked upon unfavorably by the affected voters. But these are surely assumptions; in the current political climate, we’ve seen countless examples that go against this type of logic — where people fail to connect the actions of a leader to the negative consequences that directly result and impact them. The recent policies around tariffs are one example of this.
Well, it seems the surge was short lived.
The surge came (and waned) from approval from Democrats and independents.
Since the mid-March poll, Trump's job approval rating has fallen six points among Democrats (to 7%) and four points among independents (to 39%). Higher approval ratings among those groups helped fuel the short-lived rally in approval for Trump. Republicans' evaluations of Trump have been highly stable throughout 2020, and currently sit at 93% approval.
It will be interesting to see what the (just announced) reopening does (to his rating)... immediately and then over a month.