As the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases goes up, so too does President Trump’s approval rating. This is not a coincidence. As of today, the RealClearPolitics “poll of polls” has Trump’s approval at 47.3%, the highest since he took office, and just 2% below his 49.3% disapproval number. That gap is the smallest it has been since Trump’s inauguration. One week ago, the gap was -7.9%.
For the denizens of Twitter, and for those whose primary source of news is cable talk shows and editorials in the NYC-Washington DC media axis, the upward trend in Trump’s approval may seem baffling, particularly given their steady drumbeat of stories criticizing the administration’s response to the corona virus. But it shouldn’t be. Trump is benefiting from a “rally ‘round the flag” effect – the same phenomenon that has boosted support for previous presidents in times of national crisis. First documented by political scientist John Mueller in a study focusing predominantly on Cold War military events. Mueller’s finding has subsequently been confirmed, and developed, in several additional studies that provide a clearer portrait regarding the basis of the rally effect.
The primary source of this phenomenon is rooted in presidents’ relatively unique position in the American political system. At the most basic level, presidents – as the only elected official with a national constituency – are the closest we have to the individual embodiment of national sovereignty. The impact of that role is heightened by the fact that in the U.S., the President plays a ceremonial function in additional to his (someday her) partisan political position. As such, when circumstances threaten the nation’s sovereignty, he benefits from his stature as both political head of government and chief of state by becoming the focal point of public concern about events.
But the impact of rally events is not felt universally across all members of the public. Matthew Baum finds that the most partisan members of the public are the least likely to respond to a rally event. The reason is that they are the most politically aware, and their opinions are more likely to exhibit greater ideological constraint, which lessens their likelihood of changing attitudes toward the President in response to events. More moderate, less politically aware voters, in contrast, are more responsive to the rally event. Interestingly, Baum finds that partisans are more likely to rally behind a president of the opposing party in response to a unifying event. The reason is that support from this group has more room to grow, since more of them have a lower opinion of the president to start.
William Baker and Jon O’Neal, meanwhile, find that the rally effect is greater when the President actively solicits support for his action through public statements, and if that action receives bipartisan support. So it is not the event itself so much as the President’s framing of that event, and the reaction among other elites to his framing, that seems to drive the size of the rally response.
We can see, then, why Trump’s approval ratings have gone up. First, he has appeared on an almost daily basis, often in prime time, to give press conferences documenting his administration’s response to the corona virus. Keep in mind that although that response has been harshly criticized on cable shows, only about 12 million people watch these shows regularly. That is far fewer than the almost 140 million who voted in the 2016 presidential election – most of whom do not use op eds or talk shows as their primary source of political information.
Moreover, Trump has been flanked at these press conferences by non-partisan medical experts, including Tony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, and Dr. Deborah Birx, a physician who previously served as President Obama’s U.S. Global Aids coordinator. While Trump often uses the events to take jabs at political rivals, and to praise his own administration’s response, most of the information that is transmitted by others at these press gatherings centers on specific policies the administration has taken to combat the virus. Most people are reacting to the information related to how to combat the virus, rather than the partisan frame in which it is discussed on cable television by Trump and his critics.
Most importantly, Trump’s policies, if not his framing, have attracted support at all levels of government. The most visible example is the $2.2 trillion economic relief package, which sailed through Congress with overwhelming bipartisan support and was signed into law by Trump yesterday. Despite Trump’s best efforts to step on his own bipartisan message, for now at least he is reaping the benefits of the administration’s highly visible response to the Covid-19 pandemic, one that in its broad outlines is attracting generally positive reviews nationally, as measured by polls.
Why does it matter if his approval ratings go up? Studies show that as presidents’ popularity increases, so too does their likelihood of winning reelection. For example, Alan Abramowitz’s incumbent-centered election forecast model estimates that Trump will gain about 2.5 electoral votes for every 1% increase in his approval rating, as of the June before the election. Other forecast models show a similar positive relationship between a president’s approval ratings and his reelection prospects.
Of course, that assumes that Trump’s higher approval ratings will persist until June. There is good reason to suspect that won’t be the case. George W. Bush received an initial boost in approval after invading Iraq and removing Saddam Hussein from power. But as the Iraq war dragged on, and U.S. casualties mounted, his support dropped steadily, as shown here.
More generally, studies document that most rally effects are short-lived, and barring additional events, presidential approval typically reverts to the pre-event level. In the event of a sustained rise in the death toll caused by the coronavirus during the next several months, one could envision a similar drop in Trump’s approval, particularly if that leads to a renewal of the partisan polarization among political elites that Trump has confronted through most of his first term in office. This is almost certain to happen as the presidential election campaign comes back into focus, and Joe Biden ramps up his attacks on Trump’s handling of the pandemic.
Note also that the jump in approval Trump is experiencing, while significant, is not as large (as yet) as what other presidents have experienced after rally events. For comparison purposes, Paul Brace and Barbara Hinckley find that highly publicized international incidents of short duration, coupled with a presidential statement explaining the U.S. role in that event, can boost a president’s approval rating by about 8%. (Note that their study predates the increase in party sorting since the 1990’s which may dampen the size of a rally event.)
An additional consideration is how the administration’s response to the coronavirus will impact the economy. Most election forecast models include a measure of aggregate economic performance as one of their explanatory variables. Abramowitz, for example, finds that a 1% drop in GDP can cost incumbents nearly 20 electoral votes. Should the economy fall into an extended recession, despite the passage of the stimulus bill, it could very well jeopardize Trump’s reelection chances, assuming past performance is a reliable indicator.
Most forecast models don’t kick in until midway through the election year, or later, so it is far too early to make useful predictions. Moreover, the public response to a a pandemic may not be the same as how it historically has responded to a military incident abroad, or domestic terrorism at home. So we must be cautious in predicting its electoral effects. For now, Trump appears to be benefiting from a rally-‘round-the-flag effect, at least as measured by approval ratings. Whether, and how long, it will last, remains to be seen.