A mid-January 2020 Gallup poll showed President Trump’s approval rating at a personal best of 49 percent. Record high Republican (94%) and Independent (42%) support made it possible. By contrast, Democrat approval was a mere 7%.
Obviously, the massive 87-point gap between Republican and Democratic approval received attention. In fact, the gap surpassed the previous record of 86-points that separated Democrat and Republican ratings of President Obama during his 2012 reelection bid.
Trump thus achieved the dubious honor as the most polarizing President.[i]
Now, however, in the midst of a global pandemic that threatens the health and welfare of all Americans, can Trump overcome the historical partisan polarization? Will Americans rally around their President as in past crises?
Rally around the Flag
History demonstrates the public will rally around a President during collective trauma. In such times, the President represents the country, the flag, and in a surge of patriotism – and a lack of criticism from the opposition party, approval of the president rises, sometimes dramatically. September 11 is the classic example – and the extreme case.
Approval of President Bush shot up to 90% overnight, a 39-point increase from before the attacks. Republican’s approval, already high, increased by 8 points, Independents jumped 40 points, and Democrats, starting at the lowest approval, rose 51 points.
Importantly, the polarization between Republicans and Democrats approval of Bush declined from pre-attack levels of 50 points to post-attack of 17 points. With the public firmly behind him, Bush passed sweeping legislation including the Patriot Act and Homeland Security that strengthened national security and created a new cabinet level position – Secretary of Homeland Security.
The coronavirus is not a sharply focused strike like 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. The virus spreads across countries, assaulting allies and enemies alike. We have comparatively more time to prepare and even take steps to delay or deny its onset.
Contrary to Trump’s attempt to cast himself as a wartime president, the danger posed by the coronavirus seems much too elusive to immediately overwhelm strong partisan divisions. Yes, there is fear. Yet it arises from a gnawing uncertainty, from an invisible enemy that lingers in the shadows.
The Table demonstrates that Americans are not at this time inclined to rally around the president. The tight grip of partisan habits persist – Republican approval, predictably, stayed high, Democrats low, and Independents actually dropped slightly.
Don’t misunderstand me. Without question, the pandemic produces good will among people and a common purpose. There is a palpable public spirit, a welcome solidarity that cannot be denied. Thousands of businesses and billions of people immediately followed state and federal orders to stay in place. The sacrifices are real and illustrate the powerful collective character of the nation.
However, a united disposition does not signify the absence of deep-seated partisanship.
A timely mitigation
Americans may still abandon their partisan motivations and rally. Until that time, what we may be witnessing is the beginnings of a gradual mitigation of differences. In other words, as the twin medical and economic crises intensify, partisan divisions slowly shrink, to a point that matches the perceived gravity of the situation. The dynamic develops in measured bursts of recognition and response. Compare this to the sudden tragedy of 9/11 or Pearl Harbor.
They are much different phenomena.
The seeds of mitigation exist in a specific public approval measure of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. After a slow start, Trump acknowledged the deepening crisis, and his average approval edged notably higher from early March to just above majority approval by March 19 – for this President, an impressive 11 percent increase.
The graph below plots changes in Democrats, Independents and Republican’s approval from March 13-14 to March 18-19. Noteworthy is the doubling of approval among Democrats.
Over this short time frame, Trump shifted his approach and tone, leading daily briefings alongside a task force of medical experts and other administration officials. During March 18-19, Trump signed an economic relief bill, which included free-testing and paid leave for some workers. Meanwhile the number of confirmed cases reached the 9,000 mark.
While Trump changed, so did Americans. Over this same period, a whopping 72% said the virus in some ways unsettled their lives. This was a 46% increase from a week earlier. Anxiety also edged higher. Seventy nine percent were concerned that they or someone they know would be infected, a 13% increase.
As awareness of the crisis deepened – penetrating both the public and the Trump Administration, the stark division between Democrats and Republicans’ approval of Trump’s response to the virus eroded. The partisan gap declined nearly 20 points in just under a week, from 70 points to 52.
The coming weeks will offer a clearer picture. A significantly larger mitigation of partisan difference would be helpful, if only to provide the necessary context for sustained government action.
Mitigation does not imply an impulsive favorability toward Trump. Rather, as in rally events, approval of the President generally means support for the country. Temporarily suppressed, partisanship will surely return. Much like after a flood, the river eventually returns to its form.
If public approval of Trump’s response to the coronavirus rises even higher, his overall job approval will as well. If that occurs, and that is a big “if”, then mitigation could turn into a full-blown rally.
[i] The Gallup poll was conducted in the midst of the Senate Impeachment trial, which undoubtedly widened the approval gap between Republicans and Democrats.