Monday, March 23, 2020

Four Reasons to Be Cautious About Trump's Approval Ratings

Ever since the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis began to accelerate a couple of weeks ago, political obsessives have wondered about the likely effect that it would have on President Trump's job approval ratings—and, by extension, his chances of re-election in November. The few surveys that have been conducted over the past week or two don't show any dramatic movement—the FiveThirtyEight model currently estimates Trump's national approval at 43 percent, which is more or less where he's been since the end of the government shutdown in February 2019. But the lack of any apparent decline, combined with recent surveys that showed more respondents endorsing Trump's handling of the coronavirus outbreak than disapproving so far, have inspired some analysts to argue that the president may actually be benefiting politically from the crisis at the expense of the Democratic opposition.

Perhaps that's true. But realistically, it's far too soon to glean much about either the American public's ultimate response to Trump's management of the pandemic or its implications for the upcoming election. Here are four good reasons to exercise some patience before jumping to conclusions:

1. Political leaders' popularity often rises temporarily after the onset of a crisis. Political scientists call this pattern the "rally effect," and it's been documented many times over decades of history; most dramatically, George W. Bush's job approval shot up from about 50 percent to about 90 percent virtually overnight after the events of September 11, 2001. There are several plausible factors contributing to this phenomenon: citizens close psychological ranks around their national leaders in a moment of uncertainty and fear; they evaluate these figures on different criteria than they did before the crisis erupted; and the normally critical opposition party (sometimes) mutes its attacks on the incumbent. Both French president Emmanuel Macron and Italian prime minister Giuseppe Conte have enjoyed spikes in popularity during the current coronavirus outbreak, despite (especially in Italy's case) substantial national dislocation and tragedy.

But these popularity bumps fade with time. Either the crisis is soon resolved and citizens turn their attention to other things, or it is not, in which case they start to grow impatient with the effectiveness of their leader. The 2020 general election is still far enough away that even if Trump were to benefit from the rally effect in the short term, it wouldn't be a very reliable signal of his popularity more than seven months in the future.

2. Americans are still learning about the severity and likely duration of this crisis. National journalists are closely following each development of the coronavirus outbreak; most also live in places like New York and Washington where daily life has already been dramatically changed. But large sections of the country aren't as strongly affected so far, and the less obsessively attentive typical resident of middle America will not have experienced the same degree of disruption. Many Americans are presumably still unaware of the probable length of time before things get visibly better, much less return to normal—for example, while it seems quite apparent based on the trajectory of infection that many public school systems that are now closed are unlikely to reopen before the end of the academic year three months from now, few state authorities have yet acknowledged as much in public. Citizens who anticipate that the crisis will only last a matter of a few weeks may see little reason at this point to re-evaluate their opinions about the president, but they may start to feel differently if the inconvenience persists for longer than they first assumed.

3. Americans already have strong opinions about Trump, and most of them disliked him before the crisis. Trump has never consistently exceeded 50 percent job approval as president even during three previous years of relative peace and prosperity. His approval rating among Democrats has seldom reached double digits—it stood at 7 percent in the last Gallup survey—and his approval among independents (as measured by Gallup) has generally stayed between 35 and 40 percent for most of his presidency. The only way that his popularity could fall much further would be for elements of his remaining base—consisting almost entirely of habitual Republican voters—to become disenchanted with his performance, but these citizens are unusually resistant to changing their minds about him. Their partisan alignment means that they are already predisposed to support a Republican president, they are prone to discount criticism from Democrats and mainstream journalists, and they are disproportionately exposed to Trump-friendly messages from conservative media sources.

The good news for Trump is that he may be spared significant erosion in his popularity by the strong loyalty of his fellow partisans. But a steady approval rating could also be a problem, because he's already in a vulnerable position heading into re-election and is consistently running behind likely opponent Joe Biden in national polls. Even if the crisis were merely damaging enough to prevent Trump from boosting his public support by November, that itself might turn out to be a decisive factor in the election.

4. It's not the virus, it's the economy (stupid). The most worrying component of this crisis for the Trump administration and re-election campaign isn't the spread of COVID-19 itself and the casualties that it leaves in its wake. Instead, it's the larger impact on the economy. While the specific quantitative estimates of current forecasting models should be treated with skepticism in such an unprecedented and fast-moving environment, it seems inevitable that there will be a sudden and catastrophic economic shock that will at least temporarily push the U.S. into a recession.

Trump and his supporters will argue, with justification, that it would be unfair to blame him for the economic misery that a worldwide pandemic is poised to inflict on the nation. But voters tend to reward presidents for good economic times and punish them for bad times regardless of the incumbent's actual responsibility for either outcome. It wouldn't be surprising if Trump's popularity remained stable or even rose a bit over the next few weeks during (presumably) the strictest anti-COVID remediation measures, only to decline later in the year once the larger consequences, especially declining income and employment, became more visible to average citizens. He therefore has every reason to wish not only for a shallower economic plunge than most analysts now foresee, but also for a historically rapid national rebound once the worst is over.