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Why Trump has received a much smaller approval bump than other world leaders during the pandemic

The country’s highly polarized two-party system discourages ‘rallying around the flag’

President Trump speaks with members of the coronavirus task force during a briefing in the White House on Tuesday. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

A tragedy strikes a country. Heroes emerge. Leaders confront a crisis and become national icons. This “rally around the flag” effect is a familiar one. Many Americans lived through it during the Cuban missile crisis under President John F. Kennedy or after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks under President George W. Bush.

National crises are crucial opportunities for political leaders to take charge, reassure a nation and demonstrate that they’ve got everything under control. If leaders manage the crisis well, they’re often rewarded with significant spikes in approval. Bush’s approval rating, for example, climbed over 30 points after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

That’s happening now, as leaders around the world grapple with the novel coronavirus pandemic: Approval ratings have begun to soar. Even President Trump’s approval rating, which remained remarkably consistent for the first two years of his presidency, has hit all-time highs. But Trump’s modest approval bump — around 3 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average — is quite small compared to those for other leaders:

  • In Italy, hit hard by the pandemic, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte’s approval has rallied from 46 percent to 71 percent, according to a Demos and Pi poll.
  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s already stellar job performance numbers have risen 11 points, to 79 percent.
  • French President Emmanuel Macron has seen a 15-point jump to 51 percent approval in a country notorious for disliking its political leaders; Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, once infamously received just 4 percent approval.
  • In New York, with far more coronavirus cases and deaths than any other state, Democratic Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s support has jumped from 44 percent in February to 71 percent at the end of March. Other governors have gotten similarly high marks for their handling of the pandemic.

These European governments have been criticized for much of the same shortcomings as the Trump administration has, including waiting too long to urge social distancing and inadequate testing for the coronavirus that causes the disease covid-19. Yet compared to their leaders’ increases, Trump’s 3 percentage point bump is quite small.

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Why aren’t Trump’s numbers going up more?

The answer probably involves three main factors: public disapproval of the administration’s pandemic response; the country’s extreme partisan polarization; and Trump’s low approval ceiling. I’ll explain below.

Both Trump and his European counterparts have been visibly leading the crisis response. Trump, for example, has been holding near-daily news conferences, with relevant experts and administration officials.

So why, then, is Trump’s polling bounce so comparatively small? Some of it may be Trump’s early dismissal of and inconsistent tone about the pandemic. But there are also broader structural factors at work.

Trump’s approval ratings have stayed stubbornly low.

Trump may come up short in November’s election on account of his stubbornly low ceiling — the apparent upward limit on his poll numbers. With the exception of the two months immediately after his inauguration, Trump has rarely polled above 44 percent, on average, in FiveThirtyEight’s aggregation of poll results.

By contrast, Conte, the Italian prime minister, did once receive 62 percent approval, according to Demos and Pi.

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Why are Trump’s numbers so consistently low? In part, that’s a symptom of an increasingly polarized U.S. society. Gallup, for example, finds that Trump has the largest partisan gulf, the gap between how Republican and Democratic voters rate him, for a president in U.S. history. And in October, Pew Research found that members of the two parties are deepening their animosity toward one another, “including negative sentiments among partisans toward the members of the opposing party.”

Trump has helped perpetuate this hostility, using it as a tool for his reelection campaign. For instance, despite calling for bipartisanship in responding to the coronavirus pandemic, he has lambasted Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). This divisive tribalism isn’t being seen in Europe; it’s harder to polarize and encourage absolute antipathy in multiparty systems where parties often must form coalitions to govern. In Germany, Sweden and Norway, for example, party polarization has steadily decreased over several decades, according to a Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research study.

Having less animosity and tribal recoil between members of different political parties makes it easier for leaders to encourage national unity during times of crisis. Indeed, political science research finds that citizens are most likely to “rally around the flag” — approving of the national leader’s actions — when both parties’ leaders support the president’s actions. The United States is so polarized that that’s hardly likely.

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That said, however, Monmouth University’s polls are finding that governors are getting bipartisan support for how they’re handling the outbreak. Unlike the federal level where partisan squabbling tends to be more visible, this divergence between a governor’s popularity and a state’s partisan lean long predated the coronavirus pandemic though.

What’s ahead

Public health experts expect the covid-19 crisis to worsen, both with spikes in reported infections and in the death toll — further testing Trump and the U.S. public. As of Friday, an ABC News-Ipsos poll found that 47 percent of the public approved of Trump’s management of the public health crisis, with 52 percent disapproving. That’s hardly the presidential satisfaction necessary to generate a rally-around-the-flag effect. And with Trump’s rhetoric reinforcing U.S. polarization, don’t expect to see one anytime soon.

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Shane Markowitz (@ShaneMarkowitz) holds a PhD in political science from Central European University and has lectured at Mandalay University, Comenius University, and Central European University.

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