COVID-19, President Trump Approval, and the 2020 Election

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By: Kerem Ozan Kalkan, associate professor, EKU Department of Government

In trying times, like those we are facing today in the global fight against COVID-19, there arises a sense of unity across the nation. Historically, we have seen people “rally around the flag” while seeking hope in these times of distress. This sense of collective identity tends to boost an incumbent leader’s image.. Contemporary examples provide empirical support for the positive effect of downturns on presidential approval ratings. For example, President George W. Bush enjoyed a surge in his approval ratings right after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. According to Gallup, around 90% of Americans said they approved of how President Bush was handling his job as president. The surge was bi-partisan as well. Almost all Republicans and eight out of ten Democrats showed approval for President Bush in the Gallup polls right after the terrorist attacks.

Nearly two decades later, our globe is facing yet another crisis. This time, the threat is a virus. Public health is struggling. As of August 13 the World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that there were more than twenty million confirmed cases with more than seven hundred fifty thousand confirmed deaths related to COVID-19 in the world. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports more than five million confirmed cases with more than one hundred sixty thousand confirmed deaths related to the virus in the United States.

Gallup’s presidential approval data (as shown in the figure) demonstrate that President Trump’s average approval ratings have not reached 50% since his inauguration in January 2017

This public health crisis permeates the economy. The July 2020 unemployment rate in the United States sat at 10.2%. The numbers look even dimmer in developing countries. Hospitals and health workers are both struggling as they try to provide care under these stressful times.

In times when hope is precious and rare, leaders often enjoy support. Not President Donald Trump.

Gallup’s presidential approval data (as shown in the figure) demonstrate that President Trump’s average approval ratings have not reached 50% since his inauguration in January 2017. If we take March 2020 as a reference point—the first reported COVID-19 related death in the United States (this information might change in the future)—his approval ratings rose by five percentage points to 49%. The rate dropped back to 43% in the first two weeks of April 2020.

The American public, on average, is not strongly endorsing President Trump and his response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Some experts argue, one major reason for the president’s lower-than-average approval ratings is extreme partisan polarization. The figure shows this quite clearly with such a disparity between the approval ratings from Republicans and Democrats.

Republicans back the president strongly. Their support for him never falls below 77%. His approval among Republicans is more than 88% since January 2020. And, as of April 2020, more than 90% of Republicans approve of the way President Trump is handling his job.

Democrats, on the other hand, disdain the current administration. On average, only less than 8% of Democrats provide job approval for President Trump since his inauguration in January 2017.

Even though we noted a moderate jump in the president’s approval rating in the second half of March 2020 (43% to 49%), the rise was almost exclusively due to more Democrats providing very-short-lived approval (7% to 13%) for the president. The number went back to its original low levels in the next cycle of Gallup poll results (April 1-14 2020). In the same period, Republicans almost unanimously (93%) said they approved of the way President Trump was handling his job.

The question we might ask now is how these numbers will translate into votes in the upcoming presidential election in 2020. Aside from the facts that (1) it is too early to predict anything during these extraordinary times, and (2) presidential elections are decided by Electoral College votes, we can say President Trump is heading to the election with almost a unanimous support among Republicans.

Even during a public health crisis turning into an economic nightmare, Republicans continue to show their unshakeable support for President Trump, on average.

How will Democrats be voting? Most of them will not vote for President Trump anyway. Their dislike of the president, as the figure shows, predates the COVID-19 crisis in 2020.

So, sixty years after a seminal political science study showed the central role of party identification in voting, where we find ourselves in predicting the 2020 presidential election is the same point where Campbell, Converse, Miller, and Stokes found themselves: party identification matters. Even during a pandemic.

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