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When the WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic, alarm bells went off in the public and Trump's approval started rising. On 538's polling average, his approval rating rose from 42.5% to 45.8%. But, as of now, his approval went down to 43.5% and is continuing to fall. It is almost entirely gone after 1 to 2 months.

This approval spike happened to a much greater degree for most American governors and world leaders. According to multiple sources, for example Business Insider and CNN, this is the shortest bounce ever for a president.

Why did Trump's "rally 'round the flag" effect evaporate so quickly?

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    Are those changes even statistically significant? What is the margin of error in polls like these? Aren't they usually a couple of percent? That is, these changes could just be random variations. – d-b Apr 23 at 22:41
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    @d-b That's the point. The rally-round-the-flag effect is supposed to have a statistically significant effect, both in terms of numbers and duration. – Peter Apr 24 at 12:31
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    Because Trump is handling this crisis poorly? I think the answer to this is pretty self-evident. – BradC Apr 24 at 13:49
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    @d-b To that, a valid answer could be "He never had a statistically significant rally-round-the-flag effect – divibisan Apr 24 at 14:35
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    His polls tended up while major news networks aired the entirety of every daily press briefing. Now that that's mostly stopped, his polling has fallen back to about what it was before COVID-19 really hit the US. It's pretty clearly just publicity-related. – Ryan_L Apr 24 at 16:34
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First, the "Rally 'round the Flag" effect is misnamed. These aren't really moments of patriotism. These are moments in which people wake up and realize they are facing a collective threat, something beyond their capacities as individuals to influence or control, and they look to leaders for both practical and moral guidance about collective action. They want someone to offer them a role — a part they can play within a larger strategy to address the crisis — because having a role to play staves off the reflexive fight/flight instinct. Frightened people tend to hoard food and supplies, buy weapons, lock their doors against their neighbors; people with a role and a purpose band together.

There are a few basic things a leader needs to do to receive this bump in approval during a crisis:

  • Face the problem squarely, openly, and with sober resolve
  • Empathize with the fear that the public is feeling, reassuring them that their emotions are valid
  • Provide information about the crisis, and at least the outlines of a strategic framework for coping with it
  • Call for unity to face the crisis, and project the message that no one will be forgotten, ignored, or left behind

These four points have the psychological effect of calming and refocussing the general public. To use Aristotle's 'ship' metaphor, people are reassured that someone is at the helm, guiding a course through the storm; they can look at the strategic framework and focus on what they can do within it (aside from mere self-preservation); they can follow the example of universality and unity, setting aside biases and prejudices for the duration. These basic points set a moral tone, and people respond to that moral tone proactively; the leader's approval rating goes up mainly because people start to feel better about themselves and their role in the crisis. For example, Governor Cuomo's approval rating has soared in recent weeks because his daily briefings have struck exactly this tone: everyone must work together, no one should die unnecessarily, here's what we know, here's what to do, and what we are doing... Likewise, George W. Bush's approval ratings rose after 9/11 because Bush was clear about the horror of it, empathized with the anger and fear it created, and then stood up and made it clear he was taking action. Even though Bush's actual strategy and actions were problematic in the long run (as Cuomo's actions might also be perceived in historical retrospect), the moral tone they set was exemplary.

Unfortunately, Trump failed on most of these basic points:

Of course, none of this should surprise anyone. Trump (in all of his voluminous speeches, tweets, and public appearances) has never demonstrated anything that remotely resembles empathy, and has never once offered a plan or strategy that goes beyond vague pointing and hand-waving. The mere thought that Trump would make a protracted effort — meaning anything beyond the scope of a single news-cycle — to create unity and universality is bound to produce chuckles. Whatever one's opinion of Trump as a political leader, it should be clear that Trump has neither the temperament nor the political skills to lead in a crisis, so there's no real reason why his approval ratings should increase merely because he is caught up in a crisis with the rest of us. He is not the leader for this moment.

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    >"Whatever one's opinion of Trump as a political leader, it should be clear that Trump has neither the temperament nor the political skills to lead in a crisis" this is an opinion masquerading as an objective observation. – qwr Apr 24 at 6:39
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    @qwr: Well, since we've had a somewhat over-enthusiastic pruning of comments, I'll post my questions again. (1) What aspects of Trump's temperament and skill-set do you see as advantageous and effective for this moment in history? (2) how would you suggest this closing statement be revised? I'm open to your suggestions. – Ted Wrigley Apr 25 at 16:18
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    "Trying to defund" - didn't he actually pull all US funding for WHO? – einpoklum Apr 25 at 21:49
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    @qwr: True, but if you replace "should be clear that Trump has" with "seems Trump is exhibiting" that's fixed. – einpoklum Apr 25 at 21:50
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    @einpoklum: I'll make that change if qwr agrees with it, but I'd like to hear from him first. – Ted Wrigley Apr 26 at 1:58
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According to a study published by the Pew Research Center last week, the majority of voters are pessimistic about the future with regards to Covid-19: "73% of U.S. adults say that in thinking about the problems the country is facing from the coronavirus outbreak, the worst is still to come."

This is in contrast to Trump's optimism about the future - according to this article:

President Donald Trump on Wednesday played down the possibility that the coronavirus could be worse this winter despite medical experts' warnings that COVID-19 could combine with the flu to make a more complicated return to the United States.

Trump, who has been pushing for states to begin reopening their economies, batted down notions that COVID-19 could return in large waves, as has happened in previous pandemics. Health experts and members of the White House coronavirus task force have warned of a possible comeback for the virus next fall.

“It’s not going to be what we’ve gone through, in any way, shape or form,” Trump said flatly.

He continued: “If it comes back, though, it won’t be coming back in the form that it was. It will be coming back in smaller doses that we can contain. ... You could have some embers of corona ... (but) we will not go through what we went through for the last two months.”

The fact that the public does not see their fears taken seriously by the President may contribute to a reduced approval rating.

Indeed, the overwhelming fear of the American public appears to be that restrictions on public activity will be lifted too early rather than too late. The study also found that "about twice as many Americans say their greater concern is that state governments will lift restrictions on public activity too quickly (66%) as say it will not happen quickly enough (32%)."

Meanwhile, in the last week, Trump has released guidance to state governors on how to ease lockdown restrictions, although in recent days this has been rowed back on slightly, with Georgia's governor being criticized by the President: "It's just too soon. The spas and the beauty parlors and the barber shops ... I love them but they can want a little bit longer, just a little bit, not much, because safety has to predominate."

Despite this, it is clear from the survey data that the American public has clear misgivings over the President's coronavirus response and this has translated to a hit in approval ratings.

The relatively smaller opinion spike compared to other world leaders can be at least partially explained by the high levels of partisanship in the US; the additional approval rating provided initally by the "rally 'round the flag" effect will mostly have come from independents and Democrats. Indeed, as Trump himself put it on twitter:

96% Approval Rating in the Republican Party. Thank you! This must also mean that, most importantly, we are doing a good (great) job in the handling of the Pandemic.

This is perhaps exacerbated by the fact that the Presidential election is coming up in November - Democrats will be less likely to support Trump no matter his handling of the pandemic, and Republicans will most likely have already supported the President and be unwilling to swing away from him. Conversely, most state gubernatorial elections will not be happening this year. It would be interesting to explore further whether governors of states that are having elections this year have seen a similarly muted peak in approval rating.

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    There's not much overlap between governors facing re-election and governors where I've been able to find information about approval rating increases, but there was a significant bump for the three I could find: Washington: +21, New Hampshire: +14, North Carolina: +16. With New Hampshire and North Carolina both having a governor whose party is the opposite of the state's general alignment, it's hard to say there's a strong partisan effect here. – Mark Apr 23 at 22:44
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    Good sourced answer. One point I think it misses is the media's role in shaping public opinion, but Fizz's answer touches on that. – Z. Cochrane Apr 24 at 3:22
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    Note that the in-party 96% approval claim is not necessarily fact-based. For a discussion by an admittedly-partisan source discussing the trend of these claims and their disconnection from any actual polling, see washingtonpost.com/politics/2020/04/21/…; His new 96 percent approval? Not backed by any recent public poll. (The most recent public poll released before his April 10 tweet was from Fox News. It had Trump’s approval with Republicans at a good, but more modest, 89 percent.) – Charles Duffy Apr 24 at 21:37
  • @CharlesDuffy: Oh, let's not quibble over esoteric points like truth and facts :-P +1 – einpoklum Apr 25 at 21:56
  • @CharlesDuffy unsurprisingly, it doesn't mean he's doing a good (great) job in the handling of the pandemic either! – CDJB Apr 25 at 21:58
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The abstract from this research article struck me as highly relevant:

The most widely accepted explanation for the rally-round-the-flag phenomenon is a relative absence of elite criticism during the initial stages of foreign crises. In this study we argue that the nature and extent of elite debate may matter less than media coverage of any such debate and that these often systematically diverge. We also argue that not all messages in this debate matter equally for public opinion. Rather, the persuasiveness of elite messages depends on their credibility, which, in turn, arises out of an interaction between the sender, receiver, and message. Hence, only by understanding the interactions between elites, the public, and the press can we account for variations in public responses to presidential foreign policy initiatives. We test our theory by examining public opinion data and a new dataset on network news coverage of all major U.S. uses of military force from 1979 to 2003. We content analyze all congressional evaluations of the president and the executive branch of government from the three network evening newscasts within 61-day time periods centered on the start date of each use of force. Our results offer strong support for the theory.

Applying these findings to the question I would say it appears that the public as a whole may find the wide-spread criticism of the president's handling of the crisis in the press to be more credible then the President himself. Over time, this perceived mishandling has apparently overshadowed the bump he got from the onset of the crisis.

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This may be difficult to answer precisely short of a specific "why" question in the polls, but it's worth noting that the (temporary) surge in his popularity at the beginning of the crisis came from Democrats and independents, and it's precisely those groups which are responsible for reversing that surge, as Gallup discusses:

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.

As other answers here note, Trump being in open conflict with some Democratic governors (e.g. over how strict the lockdowns should be) and his not-so-favorable coverage in the more D-leaning media on some issues related to the pandemic handling (e.g. the testing failures, his advocacy of [H]CQ -- to pick some NYT or CNN headlines) may have offset some of his early points scoring on e.g. restricting international travel to the US (a measure which did see widespread cross-party support in the polls.)

Somewhat related, Democrats' opinion of the WHO was apparently unaffected by Trump's recent criticism of the WHO, but Republicans were extremely receptive to Trump's narrative, with the Republican trust in the WHO swinging dramatically (into negative territory) after Trump's attacks.

Also from the same poll, nowadays Democrats mainly blame Trump for the spread of Covid-19 in the US, while Republicans mostly blame China. From CDJB's answer to a follow-up question (of mine), it seems indeed that (over time) Democrats have been increasingly blaming Trump for the Covid-19 situation in the US, i.e. Trump's focus on laying blame on China and/or the WHO in his press appearances doesn't seem to have worked (as he might have hoped) with the public leaning Democratic. The percentage of Democrats who mainly blamed Trump for the Covid-19 situation in the US increased from a bit under 20% at beginning of March to over 50% in April.

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Rally around the flag exists, definitely. But there are instances of the reverse too, when a leader loses popularity if their handling of a crisis is deemed incompetent. Take, for example, Carter with the Iran embassy crisis. This has also happened in protracted wars/foreign policy crisis, when someone was just thought to be bungling things. Chamberlain didn't get much of a rally around the flag in 1939 - quite the opposite.

In my opinion, Trump's somewhat surfing between the 2 effects right now.

I posit that Trump's meagre blip is due to a lack of perceived efficacy and capability in dealing with COVID-19. As @Ted said, he's not exactly lived up the ideals of sober and inclusive statesmanship. However, so far, the US is not doing extremely worse than some other countries, so he can still get the benefit of the doubt from some. Certainly, it's unrealistic to think that even the most competent POTUS could have fully nipped COVID-19 in the bud.

At some point, he even looked as if he was rising to the occasion, when he first announced that the US should prepare for deaths in the 200K range and left off partisanship for a while. People need a leader at these times.

If he really got down to work (got out of the way, actually) and leveraged the US's considerable resources and skills, he could conceivably pull off something like the South Korean president's electoral success in November. Not everyone would forgive and forget, but successfully handling the pandemic from now on could sway the undecideds.

On the other hand, if his gamble with reopenings (which at some point will have to be done anyway) goes wrong - and it seems it can go wrong elsewhere, like Hokkaido - then he's going to be hitting the flip side.

Right now, he has not unequivocally bungled it to a point where no one can give him the benefit of the doubt. You can always point to Italy and Spain as worse outcomes, for example. So he's sitting in between the 2 effects of reward and punishment for a crisis. His current supporters still support him, and his opponents may dislike him even more than before, but the degree of dislike isn't perceived in polls. So he's static in the polls.

Firing up against China isn't particularly useful on the medical side of things, but should serve to insulate him from too much criticism from his base, at least in the short term.

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    What this written before or after the news reports of his suggestion of injecting disinfectants as a treatment? theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/… – jamesqf Apr 24 at 4:21
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    did he? I didn't read that yet. I wish I could say I was surprised or ready to express disbelief. My point is not that he has not bungled it. It's that his supporters haven't caught on to that fact yet. With the little China/WHO sideshow he's keeping his name in their newsfeed for comfortable reasons. And Fox tends not to over-cover his goofs, like the time he wanted to cordon off NY. So you can bet that won't be found on their site. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Apr 24 at 5:37
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    @jamesqf confirmed. foxnews.com/politics/… this seems very much like the same event as they talk about sunlight. notice that all the stoopid has been artfully left out. speaking of UV, even if UV wasn't quite as nasty on your skin, how does Trump expect it to clean out someone's lungs? – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Apr 24 at 5:43
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Trump's leadership, if defined as making correct decisions, will only be known once we are thru this crisis. For now, people form intermediate opinion based on feelings, guesses (possibly educated ones), and emotions. This is where Trump's ability as a public speaker is important ... and IMHO one of his weaknesses. Thus, the immediate "rally" bump is suppressed largely from lack of stage presence.

Despite any political leanings, most would agree he wasn't elected for medical expertise; which means he is in unknown territory at the moment. One possible bright spot to consider: the recovery from this will largely be an economic problem; which is in his field. It will be interesting to see how his performance, and polling, presents in the end. He may see a rally bump once we can focus on recovery rather than survival.

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  • I think his ability as a public speaker shouldn't be too underrated - he's managed to convince, and hold on, to a lot of people's goodwill. Not a sentiment I share, and I don't agree with his methods to get there, by basically belittling everyone, but it works. On the flip side, I think his economic acumen is vastly overrated. He basically did a big massive stimulus by cutting taxes and a fair bit of economists warned that the long term Federal deficit is going to be a problem. That and cutting all sorts of environmental protection is his contribution to the economy. – Italian Philosophers 4 Monica Apr 28 at 0:39
  • @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica: I don't think we should overrate his ability as a public speaker, either. Good politicians are masters at the formation of public opinion; they are charismatic and persuasive, and bring people into alignment with their views. Trump is more of a chameleon: he feeds what people already believe back to them, relying on that to create a false sense of identity. It's a salesman's trick. looking back, I'm not certain that Trump has ever expressed an idea that was uniquely his own. – Ted Wrigley Apr 29 at 23:58

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