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Trump’s coronavirus poll bump, explained

He’s up about 5 points; foreign leaders are up by much more.

White House Coronavirus Task Force Holds Daily Briefing Win McNamee/Getty Images

To progressives, America’s flailing response to the coronavirus pandemic is everything that’s been terrifying about a Donald Trump presidency since his candidacy started gaining steam — dishonesty, disrespect for expertise, lack of focus and attention to detail, all colliding with a genuinely difficult policy problem to create a lethal catastrophe.

It’s sobering, then, to realize that Trump’s approval ratings, while not exactly good, have been steadily rising since mid-March to reach the highest point since the earliest days of his presidency. After an up-and-down associated with the impeachment process followed by the recent decline, he’s now up to about a 45 percent approval rating from around 40 percent at the beginning of November.

But to contextualize this a bit, essentially all incumbent leaders appear to be benefiting from a coronavirus-related bump. Compared to the governors of hard-hit states or the presidents and prime ministers of hard-hit foreign countries, Trump’s bump is actually quite small, amounting to maybe 2 or 3 points. Compare that with foreign leaders like France’s Emmanuel Macron or Germany’s Angela Merkel, who have seen double-digit increases in their approval ratings.

A Siena College poll released Monday showed New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) enjoying a 20-point boost in his approval rating.

That same poll showed a 1-point bump for Trump in New York state, a bit lower than what national averages show but not far out of line with them.

It’s not really clear what this portends for the future. But it does mean that explanations for Trump’s approval bump that focus on things like his performance at the daily staged newscasts are probably missing the forest for the trees.

Trump is faring far worse than other similarly situated leaders, and the thing to explain is not why his numbers are going up but why they are going up so little.

Trump’s polling bump is small in global terms

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.

Indeed, if anything, European data seems to suggest bigger bounces for leaders with less effective responses, though we’ll probably want to wait and see on an approval poll out of Spain — which has been one of the hardest-hit countries — before making that conclusion firmly.

Rally-’round-the-flag effects are common

In the United States, meanwhile, gubernatorial polling has been scant, but what’s out there suggests huge boosts for governors of both the hardest-hit states and states that thus far seem to have been largely spared.

It’s of course long been observed that presidents benefit from a rally-’round-the-flag effect in wartime.

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.

When Democrats praise Cuomo’s response in contrast to Trump’s, they are largely doing something similar. The governor has been a steady presence on television and a clear crisis communicator. But he was slower to take action than West Coast governors like Washington’s Jay Inslee and California’s Gavin Newsom, and the actual situation in New York seems to be quite a bit worse, perhaps as a result. But precisely because things are so bad, Cuomo is on television very frequently discussing the emergency and his efforts to cope with it — and he’s doing a good job of that, regardless of what mistakes may have been made two weeks ago.

If you’re looking for information about likely consequences for November, the most important thing to remember is that to the extent that voters change their minds, they tend to do so in the very short term — the border wall government shutdown tanked Trump’s numbers and then they bounced back right away.

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.