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Society & Culture

Why Did Trump Get a Bump?

Apr 21, 2020
  • Li Yan

    Deputy Director of Institute of American Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

The United States now has more confirmed COVID-19 cases than any other country. With the rapid spread of the virus, numerous questions have been raised about President Donald Trump’s responses to the pandemic, which have been criticized by many as inadequate.

Yet Trump’s approval rating got an upward bump to 49 percent in mid- to late-March, according to a Gallup poll, before sliding back to 43 percent in the April 1-14 poll — a slippage of 6 percentage points.

Trump's approval at the end of March was not only higher than his 40 percent average for his term but also the highest since he took office. It was also 6 to 9 percentage points higher than it was in early March, when COVID-19 began to spread on a massive scale in the U.S.

Amid the pandemic and the resulting huge stock market shocks and massive social isolation, Trump’s approval rating rose instead of being pulled down, mainly because of the following:

• First, the “rally around the flag effect,” a long-standing presence in U.S. politics, which is still in play.

The effect describes the phenomenon of the leader getting more popular support in time of war or crisis. American history has ample examples in this regard, such as the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, the 1991 Gulf War and the 911 terrorist attacks. During these crises, people tended to reduce criticism of the president and his administration, adopt a more positive view of the role of the president and place a greater emphasis on the centrality of the president in leading the country through difficult times.

In the current crisis, Trump, with his atypical style, has used the executive power extensively to project a strong image as a wartime president, gaining support in the crisis, at least temporarily. 

• Second, Trump has enjoyed extensive media exposure since the start of the pandemic, which has helped him to gain more public support.

As domestic political, economic, cultural and entertainment activities stalled and the Democratic Party had to postpone its primary election and publicity campaigns, Trump has shrewdly seized the opportunity. He has been appearing since mid-March at the daily White House news conferences, which can last longer than two hours, with a group of senior officials, attracting attention from the whole country.

With more than 200 million people staying at home, the pandemic is the prime topic. The sitting president’s exclusive media exposure offers him a special advantage. 

• Third, despite criticism and skepticism, Trump's recent efforts to prevent and control the pandemic have won the approval of many Americans, especially Republicans.

As the pandemic unfolded, he introduced a travel ban on Europe, declared a state of emergency, issued nationwide guidelines, made a high-profile announcement on cash payments for affected people and invoked the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of medical supplies by General Motors and other companies.

For a large part of the public, these have made up for some of his mistakes in the early days of the pandemic. A recent ABC poll found that 55 percent of the public approved of Trump’s work and 43 percent did not. A Gallup poll showed that the adult population’s approval rate climbed from 44 percent on March 2 to 49 percent from March 13 to 22. During that period, Trump received a 92 percent approval from Republicans and 43 percent from self-described moderate voters.

Even the approval rating from Democrats increased by 6 percentage points. Several Democratic governors, including New York’s Andrew Cuomo, California Governor Gavin Newsom and Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who have recently gained popularity and been at frequent odds with Trump, generally support the president’s initiatives. Their focus has been more on greater federal-state consultation and more material support to the states.

It’s worth noting that even Trump’s positive performance in approval ratings still lags significantly behind that of previous presidents during the many crises in history. In the face of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis, the Jimmy Carter administration’s approval rating rose 29 percentage points to 61 percent. The Gulf War gave President George H.W. Bush an approval rating of 89 percent, and the 911 attacks pushed George W. Bush's approval rating from 55 percent to 90 percent.

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the U.S. in ways no less hard than previous crises, but Trump’s gap with his predecessors in approval ratings has been apparent. Political polarization and bitter partisan fights in recent years are the main reason. According to Gallup, 92 percent of Republicans and 13 percent of Democrats approve of Trump’s response to the pandemic. In other words, the Democratic Party has been Trump’s leading critic.

A short-term spike in popularity may not mean a higher chance of re-election for Trump. Many current supporters still disagree with his overall political views and style. Future developments with the pandemic and its accompanying economic and social conflicts will be key variables for Trump’s re-election prospects.

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