On Friday, President Trump’s approval rating hit 45.8 percent — the highest since January 25, 2017, according to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker. The timing suggests that the increase in his popularity is related to his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, which most Americans think he is managing well.
Trump may be experiencing what political scientists call the “rally-around-the-flag” effect, when national leaders temporarily get more popular amid international crises. Usually, you hear about people rallying around the flag after terrorist attacks or outbreaks of war, but the coronavirus pandemic could qualify in that it too poses an imminent threat to American safety. “When a country is faced with a common threat that touches everybody, there is a tendency to unify and to look toward the leader,” Shoon Murray, a political scientist who has studied the rally-around-the-flag effect, told FiveThirtyEight. “The sense of emergency is now so high and widespread that it’s possible people could rally around the president if he was perceived as taking steps in a nonpartisan way to mitigate the crisis.”
FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast: Why Trump’s Approval Rating Has Increased
There isn’t really a modern precedent for this pandemic, but a natural disaster might be the closest thing — both are naturally occurring “acts of God” that do not discriminate in the havoc they wreak — and there is evidence that natural disasters can produce the kind of national unity that leads to a rally-around-the-flag effect. A working paper by Margaret Boittin, Cecilia Hyunjung Mo and Stephen Utych found that the Nepalese government became more popular in the wake of that country’s 2015 earthquakes.
But natural disasters don’t always produce rally-around-the-flag effects. In the context of hurricanes in the U.S., we’ve seen that the government’s response to disasters can drive public opinion either up or down. For instance, governors who were perceived as handling relief efforts in their states well, like then-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush in 2004, saw their approval ratings skyrocket. But others, like then-Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco, who was criticized for her slow response to Hurricane Katrina, emerged from the disasters with their reputations in tatters. Essentially, a national emergency gives people a new, extremely important issue on which to grade their leaders’ performance.
Despite Trump’s solid approval numbers on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans aren’t as enthusiastic about it as residents of some other countries are about their leaders’ responses. That could explain why Trump’s overall approval rating hasn’t risen nearly as much as some other world leaders’. According to Morning Consult, Trump’s net approval rating rose 5 percentage points from March 11 (the day the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus crisis a pandemic) to March 24,1 ranking sixth among the nine major world leaders Morning Consult polled. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau all experienced increases of more than 20 points in their net approval ratings.
Other American politicians are seeing huge increases in their popularity as well. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has been addressing one of the nation’s worst COVID-19 outbreaks with regular, nationally televised briefings of his own, has experienced a huge surge in support, according to Siena College polling. In February, only 44 percent of registered New York voters viewed Cuomo favorably, while 50 percent viewed him unfavorably. But last week, 71 percent (!) said they had a favorable opinion of Cuomo, and just 23 percent said their opinion was unfavorable.
One possible explanation for Trump’s relatively small popularity boost is that he’s been criticized for not taking the pandemic seriously, especially in the early going — which could also be the reason for his good-but-still-below-average approval ratings on the coronavirus specifically. Another (related) explanation is our old friend partisan polarization. Throughout his presidency, Trump’s approval rating has proven extremely difficult to dislodge from its usual 39-to-44-percent range; put simply, Americans know Donald Trump, and they’ve made up their minds about him. And because he already enjoys virtually the maximum possible support among Republicans, he would have to make headway among Democrats and independents to further increase his approval rating. But Democrats’ antipathy toward Trump is well documented, and genuine, persuadable independent voters make up only a small share of the population. “My guess is that Trump could get a limited rally if he were to act truly presidential and nonpartisan,” Murray concluded. “It seems unlikely, though, that he will get the large rally that accompanied the start of the Gulf War or the attacks on 9/11.”
Maybe a bigger question is whether Trump can sustain this higher approval rating, especially as critiques of how he’s handling the crisis are likely to intensify as the general election heats up. Political science research gives us some clues to predicting how long such a bump might last. One study found that heightened national unity triggers the rally-around-the-flag effect, but how long the president’s dissenters stay quiet dictates its duration. Assuming that Democrats continue to criticize Trump’s coronavirus response, this suggests Trump will fall back to earth relatively soon.
If the metaphor of the U.S. being at war with the coronavirus is an apt one, a higher number of deaths from COVID-19 may bring Trump’s approval rating down as well. A long line of political science research shows that high numbers of American casualties make a war, and the president waging it, less popular. On the flip side, other studies argue that a wartime president’s approval rating will remain high as long as the war is seen as successful.
At this point, though, the long-term effects of the pandemic on Trump’s political prospects are far from clear. As long as Trump is seen as responding effectively to the threat of COVID-19, he will reap the political benefits. But if Americans come to see him as bungling the crisis — if they blame him for high death tolls or widespread unemployment, for instance — Trump could wind up even less popular than he was before.