Trump's Polling Bump Was Easy Come, Easy Go

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Coronavirus, the worst crisis of Donald Trump’s presidency, had given him something he had sought all these years -- more approval of his performance than disapproval. Initial approval of his response to the pandemic brought this most historically unpopular president briefly out from the “underwater” space he’s occupied to his first ever net-positive approval rating -- and now it is gone.

In all polls, the number of Americans who have grown more concerned about the virus has risen as their approval of Trump’s performance has dropped. Most surveys have shown the partisan divide -- with Democrats being more concerned about the virus and taking greater precautions than Republicans -- is closing as the number of infections and deaths explode. Most voters believe the worst is yet to come. 

The peak in the president’s approval, from about two weeks ago, resulted from what pollsters call a “rally around the flag” effect most presidents have experienced in times of grave crisis, from war to natural disasters. Yet Trump’s was smaller and has dissipated more rapidly in comparison to his predecessors. 

The Navigators daily tracking poll out Saturday showed Trump voters are disappointed in his response, with 40% of them saying he didn’t take the threat seriously enough at first, a number that rose 17 percentage points in less than two weeks. The survey found 66% of independents, as well as 66% of Americans overall, also said he hadn’t responded to the threat early enough, and those numbers had increased by 10 points in a week.

An ABC News/Ipsos poll from Friday also found the bump had disappeared in two weeks' time, with a 55% majority that had been approving now down to 47%. New CNN polling shows the six-point approval margin Trump held in mid-March for his pandemic response is down to one point now, essentially a split opinion.  A Politico/Morning Consult poll shows the net approval of the president's management of the response dropping seven points since March 20.   

A Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape poll conducted March 19-26 found that the voters boosting Trump's approval were independents and Democrats not likely to vote for him in November, and that their approval of Trump’s management of the crisis had not weakened support for Joe Biden or his advantage over Trump. 

Robert Griffin, a political scientist and research director at the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, described the rally as “almost aspirational,” a reaction from voters to a crisis and not necessarily an approval of the response. The results, Griffin said, show “people want to approve of their leader. ... It’s human and hopeful.” 

The data in the Nationscape survey showed, as have other polls, that Trump’s tick upward in approval was nearly the smallest of most U.S. governors or leaders of other countries and was confined in many cases to his handling of the response to the virus, with 46% of those approving of Trump (overall), 12 points behind the 58% who approved of his handling of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Conservative columnist Henry Olsen described Trump’s polling bump in the Washington Post last week as “abnormally small,” and wrote that the president “has behaved erratically in public; sometimes showing calm and strength but also behaving peevishly when questioned,” and has “used Twitter and appearances on television to attack his Democratic rivals and engage in mean-spirited behavior that helped cement many people’s low opinions of him to begin with.”

NBC/WSJ pollster Peter Hart said as Trump’s ratings return to normal he still has a chance to regain approval on his response to the crisis. “If President Trump has the ability to be a leader and not the victim of COVID-19, he can be the beneficiary of sustained public support. That is a huge ‘IF’ because President Trump is the bully and always looks for someone to blame or attack.”

And GOP pollster Kristen Soltis Anderson said the resolution of the crisis is what will determine Trump’s approval rating. “If the final assessment is that his administration did a good job of handling this, he may have picked up a few converts,” she said. “But the flip-side is also true; if people think he handled this poorly, this is the kind of monumental event that could shake some previously Trump-favorable folds loose from his coalition.” 

Democratic pollster Celinda Lake sees a potential opportunity down the road for Trump when the infection curve has flattened and economic concerns become the priority again, which could be a liability for Democrats. 

“It will be interesting as well if it shifts when people shift their focus from health care to the economy.  Trump and the Republicans have consistently had a double-digit lead over the Democrats on the economy before coronavirus. We need to establish an economic plan and narrative.  Trump is losing the health care comparison with the Democrats,” she said. “I worry that when the recession hits hard, voters may decide a businessman will best help us get out of this recession.”

Currently, however, voters believe that addressing our collective health and safety is more important than addressing economic destruction. Trump could see this in the polling, where more than three in four Americans have accepted and are practicing social distancing measures and describing this as a health crisis rather than an economic one. It shows he has the leeway with voters to enact the only two policies that would contain the spread of the virus -- a national lockdown or a national testing regime, or both. To date, Trump has done neither. 

A.B. Stoddard is associate editor of RealClearPolitics and a columnist. 

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