Is it real, and under the circumstances, is it spectacular? The sudden improvement in Donald Trump’s overall approval ratings has now appeared in most of the political polling series, even if one or two of them shows a bit of plateauing now. Today’s aggregate average chart from RealClearPolitics makes the point clearly:
Trump currently enjoys the smallest gap in approval/disapproval since inauguration. His approval rating on its own is the highest it’s ever been. So what gives? FiveThirtyEight’s Nathaniel Rakich does a deep dive on the numbers and the context, and mainly comes up with the correct answer — a rally effect limited by existing partisan boundaries:
Trump may be experiencing what political scientists call the “rally-around-the-flag” effect, when national leaders temporarily get more popular amid international crises. Usually, you hear about people rallying around the flag after terrorist attacks or outbreaks of war, but the coronavirus pandemic could qualify in that it too poses an imminent threat to American safety. …
Despite Trump’s solid approval numbers on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Americans aren’t as enthusiastic about it as residents of some other countries are about their leaders’ responses. That could explain why Trump’s overall approval rating hasn’t risen nearly as much as some other world leaders’. According to Morning Consult, Trump’s net approval rating rose 5 percentage points from March 11 (the day the World Health Organization officially declared the coronavirus crisis a pandemic) to March 24,1 ranking sixth among the nine major world leaders Morning Consult polled. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau all experienced increases of more than 20 points in their net approval ratings.
One possible explanation for Trump’s relatively small popularity boost is that he’s been criticized for not taking the pandemic seriously, especially in the early going — which could also be the reason for his good-but-still-below-average approval ratings on the coronavirus specifically. Another (related) explanation is our old friend partisan polarization. Throughout his presidency, Trump’s approval rating has proven extremely difficult to dislodge from its usual 39-to-44-percent range; put simply, Americans know Donald Trump, and they’ve made up their minds about him. And because he already enjoys virtually the maximum possible support among Republicans, he would have to make headway among Democrats and independents to further increase his approval rating. But Democrats’ antipathy toward Trump is well documented, and genuine, persuadable independent voters make up only a small share of the population. “My guess is that Trump could get a limited rally if he were to act truly presidential and nonpartisan,” Murray concluded. “It seems unlikely, though, that he will get the large rally that accompanied the start of the Gulf War or the attacks on 9/11.”
This is probably the clearest-eyed view of the limits of this boost. In a few of the polls where crosstabs are accessible, Trump gained mainly from demos where he normally performs more poorly. His strong demos are solid enough to barely budge, but the crisis appears to have some people at least temporarily rethinking previous rock-solid Trump opposition. That has raised the ceiling on Trump’s normal approval rating from ~44% to the 47-48% range, but likely won’t go much above that.
On the other hand, it might not need to go much above that, either. Trump won with historically low approval ratings and sky-high enthusiasm — against a weak opponent, to be sure, but still. A couple of points upward in approval, if sustained, and especially in those demographics, and Trump has a shot at a 40-state win against another weak opponent. But can the boost be sustained? It really depends on Trump, Rakich concludes:
At this point, though, the long-term effects of the pandemic on Trump’s political prospects are far from clear. As long as Trump is seen as responding effectively to the threat of COVID-19, he will reap the political benefits. But if Americans come to see him as bungling the crisis — if they blame him for high death tolls or widespread unemployment, for instance — Trump could wind up even less popular than he was before.
To succeed, Trump has to change tactics during the crisis. Rather than give in to temptation to operate as a bare-knuckled political brawler as is his usual mien, Trump now has to act presidential and rise above the fray. That is the advantages presidents have in genuine crises — they can act like leaders who work with anyone and everyone to beat whatever crisis emerges. After initially failing to realize that, Trump has embraced that role.
As I write in my column at The Week, the media hasn’t — and is paying the price for it:
The media’s negative ratings from a public are even more remarkable, coming from Americans clearly in the mood to support its national institutions in this crisis. The media’s focus on itself and its existing antagonisms with Trump rather than on the urgent issues at has created a further gulf between the industry and its consumers. They failed to grasp the moment that Trump belatedly recognized, and they still have not quite come to terms with it. …
The media’s reaction to such access [of the daily briefings] has been instructive. While outlets’ ratings have soared, some reporters want their employers to stop covering the briefings, ostensibly because of Trump’s proclivity for spreading misinformation, but also perhaps because of the briefings’ effectiveness at boosting Trump’s popularity; as CNN’s Daniel Dale complained, they had “replace[d] campaign rallies.”
That attitude might puzzle viewers who are locked in their homes and desperate to find out what’s happening with the coronavirus crisis. Coming from the same media outlets that have lamented (for good reason) the end of the daily briefings during normal, non-crisis periods, these complaints sound hypocritical. Furthermore, they have a strong whiff of bias, especially when reporters spend too much time trying to interrogate Trump over his past statements rather than on what is happening at the moment.
Voters appear to be signaling that these fights are of little interest to them. Rightly or wrongly, what Americans see is the media feuding with the president while the president takes action to meaningfully address the crisis.
In other words, the media acts as though their feud with Trump is the real story, and the most important news is what Trump said at the beginning of last month. Trump acts as though the crisis itself is the real story, and is much more focused on what is happening today and tomorrow in these daily briefings. As long as that continues, expect Trump’s ratings to remain at their new ceiling … and the media’s to continue their decline.