The coronavirus pandemic was bound to hurt President Donald Trump’s reelection chances, right?
As thousands of Americans got sick, loved ones died and the economy cratered, many assumed the grim forecast – and the president initially downplaying it – would mean a much tougher road for Trump to stay in the White House come November.
But early reviews of Trump’s handling of the crisis suggest that’s not necessarily the case. A new Gallup poll found Trump’s approval rating has shot up to 49% – matching the best of his presidency and a 5-point boost since the outbreak started. What’s more, 60% of Americans in the Gallup poll approved of Trump’s response to the outbreak.
Trump’s 47.3% approval rating in Real Clear Politics’ average of polls is his highest since taking office: He’s up 5 points to 49% in a new ABC/Washington Post poll, up 1 point to 48% in a Fox News poll and up 1 point to 45% in a Reuters/Ipsos poll. Each showed mixed reviews on his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, in contrast to Gallup.
The polls come well before the full economic toll of the pandemic has sunk in. And Trump, who has banked much of his reelection on a booming economy and stock market, could struggle to keep those approval numbers if already-skyrocketing job losses soar higher. The health crisis is just at its early stages, experts say. The number of Americans hospitalized will increase. So will the number of dead. What if the virus is still wreaking havoc in the fall?
But the initial boost for Trump – whose base has remained loyal throughout his presidency – might indicate he’s not as vulnerable as some first thought and raises the possibility that Trump could capitalize by leading the country during and through a major crisis.
“There’s evidence of a rally effect — a kind of rally around the flag,” said Jeffrey Jones, senior editor for the Gallup Poll, “which is a pretty reliable historical pattern that we’ve seen in presidential approval historically.”
Biden still leads head-to-head race, poll finds
Despite Trump’s gains related to his approval rating, a new Fox News poll on a head-to-head matchup with Democratic front-runner Joe Biden found the former vice president leading Trump 49%-40% – outside the margin of error and virtually unchanged from February.
“A key takeaway from the Fox News poll: improvements in Trump’s approval rating are having no real impact on voting intentions in trial heats with Biden, and haven’t dented Biden’s lead,” Geoff Garin, president of the Democratic polling firm Hart Research, tweeted.
During a virtual news conference Wednesday, Biden initially responded to a question about Trump’s approval rating by saying it hadn’t changed. A reporter corrected him.
“Well, I hope that he’s so strong that he’s up way above that because we need the help now,” Biden said from his home in Delaware. “We need help now.”
Democrats, Biden and other critics have hammered Trump as slow and unprepared to respond as the coronavirus spread from Wuhan, China. They’ve blasted his lack of a national plan, mixed messaging and for leaving action up to governors and mayors, who have begged for more medical equipment. Health experts have called Trump’s pitch to get the nation back to business in a matter of weeks dangerous.
A new online ad from the Biden campaign uses Trump’s own words in a news conference downplaying the crisis as “one person coming in from China,” claiming it’s “going to disappear.”
The ad displays a tracker with the number of coronavirus cases ticking upward as Trump is shown saying he does not take responsibility for the lack of early testing, grading his response a “10” on a 10-point scale, and telling a journalist he’s a “terrible reporter” when asked about Americans who are scared.
“Real crises demand real leadership,” the ad concludes. “Not lies. Not excuses. Not scapegoats.”
Trump, in turn, has touted his decision to ban travel from China after the virus accelerated in the city of Wuhan and praised the rise in testing in the U.S. after a slow start that was roundly criticized.
“Anybody who attempts to politicize and weaponize a public health crisis is revealed to be petty and peevish,” presidential counselor Kellyanne Conway told The Washington Post. “To criticize Trump now is to criticize public health officials, FEMA, first responders, private-sector businesses that are all coming forward to help.”
A weaker ‘rally effect’ than other presidents
As the pandemic exploded, some observers proclaimed Trump’s run in the White House virtually over.
Peter Wehner, senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, wrote, “Donald Trump is shrinking before our eyes” in an Atlantic column titled “The Trump Presidency is over.” Foreseeing a country of “Trump Towns,” Princeton University history professor Meg Jacobs compared Trump’s response to the coronavirus to Herbert Hoover’s inaction before the Great Depression in a Washington Post column titled “Covid-19 may destroy Donald Trump’s presidency.”
“Soon they are likely to look for a politician who will do more,” she said of American voters.
But Trump’s 49% approval rating in the Gallup poll is a point higher than the 48% President George W. Bush had in 2004 when he defeated Democrat John Kerry. Bush’s 48% stands as the lowest rated presidential incumbent by Gallup to ever win reelection.
And yet Trump’s bounce is much smaller than past “rally around the flag” moments. They include a 7-point approval spike to 51% for President Barack Obama that Gallup found after Osama bin Laden was killed, the 12-point bounce for Franklin D. Roosevelt to 84% after the bombing at Pearl Harbor, and the massive 35-point jump for Bush after the 9/11 attacks to 86%.
That’s because, according to Jones, bounces are “more muted” today; partisanship means people’s opinions of the president are tied more deeply to party.Voters have strong opinions about Trump, in particular. Still, even among Democrats, Trump’s approval rating in the Gallup poll jumped 6 points from earlier this month, to 13%, and 8 points among independents, to 43%.
“Typically, the initial surge is the biggest and then it would taper off, but it could certainly sustain itself for a while,” Jones said. “In this case, I definitely think it could stay up there for a while. Obviously, it’s going to be tied to events and how things go.”
But because Biden has maintained a head-to-head lead, Nate Silver, editor-in-chief of FiveThirtyEight, downplayed the significance of Trump’s improved approval ratings.
“This seems important and suggests that a lot of Trump’s approval bounce comes from Dems and indies who are trying to express sympathy at a time of national crisis but have no intention of voting for him,” Silver wrote on Twitter.
Strict health care guidance vs. propping up the economy
As several states enforce strict shelter-at-home orders and advisories, Trump pushed this week to restore normal behavior and reopen the economy in a matter of weeks, not months. “I would love to have the country opened up and just raring to go by Easter,” he said.
With Americans eager to know the latest developments in the crisis, Trump has enjoyed enormous television ratings for his news briefings, on par with “Monday Night Football,” The New York Times reported.
“If it were up to the doctors, they may say let’s shut down the entire world,” Trump said. “We can’t do that.” He warned against the slowdown of the economy creating bigger problems than the virus itself: “We can’t have the cure be worse than the problem.”
Health experts have said stay-at-home and social-distancing measures are needed to “flatten the curve,” the term used to describe a slow and steady rise in the number of cases of COVID-19 rather than a sharp spike that could overwhelm the nation’s health care system. Easing off restrictions could cause a spike, they’ve warned.
But Trump’s position could allow him to rally his base regardless of the economic and health outlook.
“He’s definitely trying to create a narrative, and it could go either way,” Jones said. “If things are back to normal by then, then he could say, ‘Look I was right all the time.’ And if things aren’t, then he can say, ‘Well it could have been, but these people were standing in my way.’
“Either way, he’s trying to have it come off positive for him. Certainly, his supporters are going to blame the doctors, the Democrats, the media, if things aren’t back to normal by (April 12.) So the key is going to really be independents.”
History shows unemployment rate looms large over reelection
Biden has made Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak the center of his case against the president. He pushed back at Trump for choosing a random date to end social-distancing practices.
“Look, we all want to get back to normal as quickly as possible, but we have a lot to do to make that possible,” Biden said. “We have to do it in a smart way to not meet some arbitrary or symbolic timeline. It would be a catastrophic thing to do for our people and for our economy if we went people back to work just as we saw the impact of social distancing take hold, only to unleash a second spike in infections.”
Election history shows why Trump is eager to get the economy rebooted seven months before the November election.
When Obama won reelection in 2012 with 7.9% unemployment coming out of the Great Recession, it was the highest unemployment rate for a president to win a second term since Roosevelt in 1936. It was in double digits during the Great Depression.
The nation’s unemployment rate was 3.5%, a 50-year low, in February. But on Thursday, the number of Americans filing initial applications for unemployment benefits jumped nearly twelvefold to a record 3.3 million last week, according to the Labor Department, offering the most vivid evidence yet of the coronavirus’ widespread damage to the economy.
What that means for the March unemployment rate won’t be released until April 3, but estimates are that it could exceed 10% in the coming months.
One area Jones said he’ll be watching is whether voters give Trump an initial pass for the rising unemployment because of the difficult situation. But if it stretches through the summer, he said, it will be harder for him to avoid a hit.
“The longer it stretches on, the more vulnerable he becomes.”
Reach Joey Garrison on Twitter @joeygarrison.