What's Behind Trump's Surge in the Polls?

As we begin the April of an election year, we political observers and analysts find ourselves in a peculiar position: Basically, there are no campaigns right now at the presidential, Senate, or House levels. In fact, there are no other subjects or issues other than the coronavirus and immediately adjacent topics.

We know the economy is headed into a recession, probably a deep one or even a depression. To put the question another way, what shape will the downturn take? Will it be a V-shaped recession, which moves sharply down, then quickly bounces back? Or will it be U-shaped, holding on the bottom a bit longer? Or is it the most-dreaded, an L-shaped recession, which drops basically straight down, hits bottom and stays there, seemingly forever. In the present case, however, there may be a fourth possibility—a W-shaped recession, which drops down pretty sharply, bounces back up, then repeats. If the coronavirus is thought to be licked but it stages a counterattack, then we may have to go through this again, with even more lives lost and livelihoods effectively destroyed.

So where are Trump’s approval ratings right now? The average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics shows him with 48 percent support, while FiveThirtyEight’s average has him at 46 percent. As pointed out in a column earlier this week, both include a few online and robo polls that I don’t find particularly reliable, along with the major live telephone-interview surveys. His approval reaches as high as 49 percent (Gallup) and as low as 41 percent (Quinnipiac University, although their most recent poll was in early March). One online poll that I have started to watch is a nightly tracking survey for various progressive and labor groups by Navigator Research. It showed a 47 percent approval in its March 27-April 1 interviewing. These polls show an increase of between 2 and 5 percentage points from their first surveys in January, really before the coronavirus effectively hit U.S. shores.

Trump’s approval gains do not appear to be quite as high as some other leaders of major Western countries, nor compared to other American presidents during a period of crisis. And as expected in this period of tribalism, there are huge partisan differences on the question of how Trump has handled the coronavirus crisis and whether he was a bit late to take it seriously, but, at least looking at the more reputable polls (some political scientists are making judgements on some pretty dubious ones), there is little doubt that he’s gotten a bump.

Why? There are several reasons that come into play. In no particular order, here are a few:

First is the rally 'round the flag phenomenon. Americans’ natural reaction to a crisis is to unite behind the president. Sometimes it lasts only briefly, but often it endures. Look no further than George W. Bush after 9/11, whose surge carried on for well over a year.

A second reason may be Trump’s strategy over the past two weeks to flood the zone with his daily coronavirus task force briefings at the White House. Americans are thirsty for news about this crisis that is so profoundly affecting their lives; they have a lot more time on their hands than normal, and are watching news as much as ever. Just as in the 2016 campaign, Trump is often getting wall-to-wall cable news coverage, and in Trump World, any press is good press.

This has also enabled him to frame the debate better, circumventing the “Mainstream Media,” just as he’s done through social media and cable during and since his first campaign. That so many Americans were skeptical about the severity of the crisis (some still are) is evidence of the mistrust and distrust that a lot of Americans, particularly on the Republican and conservative side, have for the media. Trump has developed direct channels to them and for many, it is the only channel they tune into.

A fourth reason might be the better-late-than-never argument. While there is little doubt that Trump was late to take this seriously, many were so relieved that he finally did that they continue to give him credit for coming around. Besides, Americans have notoriously short attention spans.

Finally, there is the strategy that Trump has really mastered. Given that much of his base really doesn’t believe mainstream reporting, as long as he can muster an alternative narrative, they are willing to take it. Recently we began to hear that this would not have been so bad if the Chinese had been more forthcoming when the disease first broke out. Some even claim that this is some kind of Chinese bio-chemical attack.

Another is what Rush Limbaugh has begun to call “the four corners of deceit,” that science, academia, the media, and government are out to get the president, that they’ve been trying to nullify the 2016 election since the votes were counted.

This is no three-ring circus. There is just one ring.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on April 3, 2020