Why is Trump getting more popular now (political science can explain)

I first meant to write about this over a week ago, but I keep putting it off.  On the one hand, it is really frustrating to see Trump’s approval go up as he flails about and lies at press conferences and has failed to lead in a response that will surely mean more dead Americans.  On the other hand, the very modest increase in approval he’s had is eminently predictable and explainable by how political science has long understood presidential approval and it suggests this will be short-lived.

Political Scientist, Matthew Dickinson, with a really nice post:

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…

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…

Moreover, Trump has been flanked at these press conferences by non-partisan medical experts…

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…

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…

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.

And Yglesias just came out with a nice piece summarizing a lot of good info on this:

Italy has become the poster child for the coronavirus’s global spread, and the Italian government’s handling of the outbreak is widely cited as a cautionary tale of mistakes to avoid.

But the public gives high marks to Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and his cabinet, a hastily composed coalition government that was formed last year in a desperate bid to keep the far right out of power. Polls show a sky-high 71 percent approval rating for a formerly unpopular team.

Smaller but still large approval bumps are also evident for Merkel and Macron.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s approval ratings have also soared into the high 70s, despite a policy approach characterized by a confusing back-and-forth on whether to even try to contain the virus, leading to a situation where the prime minister himself has been infected

Franklin Roosevelt’s numbers went up after Pearl Harbor, Jimmy Carter’s rose in the initial phase of the Iran hostage crisis, and George W. Bush’s soared after the 9/11 attacks. One common thread in all of this is that voters seem to discount the question of presidential conduct before the crisis hit. The hostage crisis, for example, was precipitated by the Carter administration’s decision to admit the recently deposed shah of Iran into the country after a lobbying campaign led by Chase Manhattan Bank. The Bush administration ignored warnings about al-Qaeda during its first nine months in office and sidelined plans it inherited from the Clinton administration for more aggressive action.

But in both cases, the incumbent president played the role of national leader on television very effectively in the early days of the crisis; only later would public support eventually wither…

The most striking thing about Trump’s approval rating bump, however, is simply that it’s very small. Compared to other politicians in the US and abroad, he’s very bad at playing a unifying figure. As a politician, that weakness is offset by the way the Electoral College overweights his coalition. But given the public opinion equivalent of a layup, he’s falling far short of the hoop.

Right, as Jonathan Bernstein (I think?) likes to say, Trump just isn’t very good at presidenting.  When the world seems to change so much in just a matter of days it seems foolhardy to try and predict, but I’ll go out on a limb and predict Trump’s approval ratings in October will be notably lower than they are now.  And, for his odds of reelection, that’s decidedly not good.

About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

3 Responses to Why is Trump getting more popular now (political science can explain)

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    If and when the number of deaths pass the expected number of flu deaths in “ordinary” years, the president’s approval ratings will drop as the numbers of the dead rise.
    Full disclosure – this is not an opinion based on science but from my years of observing people. Remember that health care workers except many doctors are part of the struggling middle class. Their stories of unmet needs for essential supplies and the resulting failures will spread through out our population.

    • Jim Danielson says:

      The question is, how much will it drop? I don’t see his supporters seeing reality. They appear to swallow almost anything.

      • Steve Greene says:

        He’s been as low as 40. I think we can expect he’ll end up at the low end of the range we’ve seen for him. Maybe upper 30’s. Of course, in a non-polarized era, he’d be at 20 right now.

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