How a Public Health Crisis Becomes a Public Trust Crisis
Americans are beginning to pass judgment on their leaders for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic, and their judgment appears increasingly harsh, especially for governors who rushed to reopen early and for the president who encouraged them to do so.
The latest wave of our ongoing 50-state survey, conducted June 12-28 by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, finds an average decline of almost 10 percentage points since April in public approval of their governors’ handling of the COVID outbreak. Only in five states -- Hawaii, Michigan, New Jersey, South Dakota and Vermont -- have governors’ approval ratings increased over this period.
These declines track similar movement in public support for President Trump’s handling of the pandemic. The average 8.2-point decline since April for the president is all the more significant given his far lower starting point. Back in April, 64% of the public, on average, approved of their state governor’s handling of the pandemic. The corresponding figure for Trump was 42%.
To some extent, these patterns likely result from growing public frustration with the resurgence of the pandemic and resulting return to (recommended or required) behavioral restrictions in an increasing number of states, combined with continuing widespread economic hardships.
We see similar downward trends in public trust across all 14 institutions we asked about, including public ones (the CDC, Congress, White House, police, city government, state government) and private (banks, social media and pharmaceutical companies, news media), as well as public health experts (hospitals and doctors, scientists and researchers) and political leaders (Trump, Biden). The largest losses of faith were reserved for the public institutions responsible for public safety and the nation’s pandemic response, such as the police (-14 points), Congress and state governments (-9 points each), and the White House (-11 points). Even though our questions measure trust in institutions to handle COVID-19, some of this change likely also reflects the impact of anti-police-brutality protests that swept the country this spring and summer.
Looking across trends in gubernatorial and presidential approval in the 50 states from April through June, several additional noteworthy patterns emerge. The governors of the mostly Northeastern states that were hardest hit early in the pandemic -- many of whom implemented some of the most restrictive policies in the nation in response -- continue to enjoy high popularity, in most cases exceeding 60%, even as the president’s approval has trended downward, falling below 30% in many of these Democratic-leaning states.
Second, the largest gaps between the governor and the president emerge in Democratic-leaning states with Republican governors who bucked the White House and took aggressive action to counter the pandemic early on. There are four governors with approval ratings above 70% -- all Republicans in Democratic-leaning states (Massachusetts, Maryland, Vermont, and New Hampshire). The only Democratic governor to enjoy comparable public support – and a comparable approval advantage over the president -- is Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, whose approval for her management of the pandemic has increased by 7 points between April and June, from 62 to 69%. In sharp contrast, Trump’s approval ratings in these five states hover around 30%.
Third, in many Southern, mostly Republican-leaning states, the approval advantages that governors enjoyed over the president have largely disappeared. In states such as Tennessee, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and Florida, the governors’ approval trends have been markedly negative and increasingly track the president’s downward approval trajectory. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are the states where the governors most closely aligned their pandemic policy responses to those of the Trump administration. Of the 10 states where governors have ratings below 45%, six are Sunbelt states with Republican governors.
The case of Arizona is instructive. Gov. Doug Ducey -- like the president, a former business executive with no prior government experience -- has the dubious distinction of possessing the lowest approval for his COVID-19 response of any governor in the country, dropping from 57% in May – at the time among the lowest ratings for a U.S. governor -- to 33% in late June.
Ducey (pictured) closely associated himself with the president from the outset of the pandemic. In late April, soon after Trump began urging states to reopen their economies, Ducey began doing so. Barbershops and hair salons opened on May 8; restaurants on May 11. The lockdown was lifted on May 15. Further, Ducey prohibited local governments from implementing any more-aggressive measures, such as mandatory mask wearing. Leaked emails, in turn, revealed that Arizona’s Department of Health Services had instructed a team of researchers at Arizona State University, which had been working with the state to model COVID-19 spread, to cease its work.
The public strongly opposed Ducey’s rapid reopening of the state’s economy. In our May survey, only 15% of respondents supported reopening “right away,” while 56% supported reopening in “4 to 6 weeks” or after “more than 8 weeks.” Reopening occurred despite admonitions from experts at the University of Arizona and ASU indicating that reopening in May would lead to an exponential increase in cases the following month.
In the period since the reopening, the number of daily new cases in Arizona has increased almost tenfold, from 495 (on May 15) to 4,877 (on July 1). The observed increase cannot be explained by more testing alone, as suggested by Trump. The number of administered tests on May 15 was 7,663 and on July 1 it was 17,240, a mere 2.25-fold increase in tests.
On June 29 Ducey ordered a partial re-closing of businesses, such as bars, movie theaters, and gyms. This combination of reopening despite public and expert opposition, and the subsequent explosion of COVID-19 cases, likely explains his low approval.
Once again widening our focal lens to look across all states, several takeaways emerge. First, even as the public remains cautious -- with fewer than one in five Americans in our latest survey favoring immediate reopening -- Americans are nonetheless growing impatient with the apparent inability of our institutions and leaders to control the pandemic. Governors who moved quickly to reopen without following CDC guidelines and whose states are now suffering a resurgence of the pandemic are paying the largest political price, along with an increasingly unpopular president whose handling of the pandemic has grown steadily less popular since we began polling in mid-April.
Second, the public has mostly rewarded governors who distanced themselves from the president to pursue more proactive measures -- including lockdowns and mandatory masking requirements -- especially when doing so required assuming the extra political risk of crossing the emerging partisan divide over these measures (e.g., Charlie Baker, Chris Sununu, Larry Hogan, and Mike DeWine), or, in the case of Whitmer, direct confrontation with the president.
Finally, the patterns across the 50 states calls to mind a refrain repeated by many pundits and public health experts that fixing the economic crisis requires first fixing the public health crisis. To that refrain we might suggest an addendum: fixing the public health crisis also appears necessary to fix an emerging crisis of political standing and trust. In a cruel irony, the latter crisis will surely complicate any future public health efforts aimed at combating the pandemic.
This article was written by Matthew A. Baum, David Lazer, Alexi Quintana, Roy Perlis, Katherine Ognyanova, James N. Druckman, John Della Volpe and Mauricio Santillana.