As the coronavirus pandemic moves into week two, polls (both private and public) are showing a definite uptick for President Trump’s handling of the crisis — and even some movement in his overall job approval rating.
The most recent Gallup poll (March 13-22) found that 60 percent of Americans approved of the job the president was doing on handling the coronavirus issue, including almost a third (27 percent) of Democrats. Trump also saw a five-point jump in his overall job approval rating, going from 44 percent to 49 percent.
Polling done for Navigator Research by Democratic polling firms Global Strategy Group and GBAO found a similar 6-point bump in Trump’s job approval from the beginning of the month (41 percent), to now (47 percent). And, like Gallup, Navigator found a majority (52 percent) approved of how Trump was handling the coronavirus issue.
So what’s going on? Is this a short-term rally in a time of crisis? Or, is it proof that coronavirus can do what, thus far, no other event over these past three years has been able to do: make real and lasting change to opinions of this president?
Gallup’s Jeffery Jones writes that the data “suggest a presidential approval rally effect.” There has been a “fairly sudden increase, and that increase is seen among both independents and Democrats — both highly unusual for Trump in particular.”
The rallying is to be expected, notes Jones. “Historically, presidential job approval has increased when the nation is under threat. Every president from Franklin Roosevelt through George W. Bush saw their approval rating surge at least 10 points after a significant national event of this kind…During these rallies, independents and supporters of the opposing party to the president typically show heightened support for the commander in chief.”
In the era since 9/11, however, there’s not been a similarly big (or lasting) bump in approval ratings for a president in a time of crisis. After the killing of Osama bin Laden in May of 2011, President Obama saw his job approval ratings jump 7-points — from 44 percent to 51 percent. But, by June of 2011, those approval ratings dropped back into the mid-40s where they stayed for the rest of the year and most of 2012 as well.
For President Trump, even with strong support from Americans for his handling of this crisis, his overall job performance ratings remain within the narrow 'trading range' they've been since the start of his presidency (between 35-49 percent). In other words, his performance - thus far - on handling this issue hasn't fundamentally changed the way that voters perceive him and his stewardship of the office.
Democrats argue that Trump’s bump in approval is likely to be short-lived. Anita Dunn, a senior adviser to the Biden campaign (and a long-time Democratic strategist), argues that there’s a big difference between “short-term effects of rallying” versus the “long term effects about poor planning” that have been exhibited by this White House.
Another Democratic strategist tells me via email that while Trump’s “approval is up, particularly his approval on coronavirus response. BUT, the uptick is heavily driven by Democrats who (A) are not going to stay with him in the long haul; (B) likely driven by folks who WANT him to succeed, not people who actually think he is doing well.”
Moreover, this person argues, that Trump’s biggest negatives — namely the administration’s “failure to prepare/respond” have yet to be realized.
One GOP pollster I spoke with this week argues that we should think of this not as a 'rally' around Trump, but to see it as more about latitude. That is, voters who aren't normally fans of the president (Democrats and many independents), are currently giving the president some 'latitude' to navigate this unprecedented crisis. However, there's no evidence in the data, said this person, that they are turning into Trump voters.
Robert Blizzard, a partner at the GOP polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, argues there are just way too many unknowns at this point to be able to credibly predict where Trump’s job approval ratings will be, even in the near term future. “We could all argue until we’re blue in the face about how long a rallying effect will stay in place, but there’s simply no denying there’s a rallying effect going on right now.” He goes on to tell me that “virtually every survey I’ve seen over the last week — public or private — has shown a rallying effect taking place. In some places it’s a few points, in others, it’s a handful.”
“Do I believe that Trump will win 13% of the Democratic vote in November? No,” Blizzard told me.” But, the key number to watch is independents, and Trump’s approval IS climbing among that key bloc of voters.”
In the Gallup poll, Trump’s job approval among independents jumped 8-points (35 percent to 43 percent), while the Navigator poll showed an even more dramatic 16-point jump among independents (33 percent to 49 percent).
“Arguing over whether these new Trump approval numbers will hold through the Fall is one thing,” said Blizzard, “but denying they exist is flat out wrong.”
The fact that three different Democratic organizations —Priorities USA, American Bridge and Pacronym — have all recently begun to attack the president’s handling of the coronavirus crisis in TV and digital advertising, is a pretty sure signal that Democrats agree with Blizzard’s assessment of the current political environment.
Earlier this week, Priorities USA began what they say is a $6M TV/digital ad campaign in key battleground states that attacks Trump with his own words from earlier in the year when he downplayed the seriousness of the virus. Another one, titled “Better Prepared,” makes the case that Biden is better suited for the crisis. Pacronym and American Bridge are running ads that similarly criticize the president’s slow response to the pandemic.
But, will these ads be able to break through the din of breaking news alerts and “shelter-in-place” orders? Will anyone remember an ad run eight months before an election? Will they be seen as unseemly?
One Democratic strategist I talked to this week (and not directly affiliated with the three Democratic SuperPACs), argues that Democrats have little choice but to go on the offense. Trump’s ubiquitous presence on TV gives the president a very real advantage in setting the narrative and the coverage. As such, this strategist said, if Democrats fail to engage, they risk losing “the opportunity to shape the story.” While there is a real risk to looking like one is ‘cheering’ for Trump to fail, or focusing on politics at a time of the pandemic, this strategist says the risk is lower than one would think. “My instinct is to tiptoe into this issue (of coronavirus),” this person said, “but the data we are seeing says we don’t have to tiptoe.” In other words, voters are not — at this point at least — going to penalize Democrats for attacking the president.
Campaign strategy 101 says never allow one’s opponent to have total control of the airwaves or the messaging. That lesson was driven home in 2016 as Trump's opponents in both the primary and general election found themselves gasping for media oxygen as Donald Trump sucked up hours of TV coverage with his rallies and rambling press availabilities. As such, even at this time of uncertainty and crisis, it should come as little surprise to see Democrats trying to inject their own message — and attacks on Trump — into the conversation.