Understanding the "Covid bump"

Political leaders see their approval skyrocket in times of crisis

If you’ve been an obsessive news consumer (don’t recommend it), you may have noticed something strange. As Covid-19 stalks the land and a recession sets in deeply and suddenly, the President is…more popular than ever? [FiveThirtyEight]. This might seem surprising or even confusing to you.

While this may not make sense in isolation, it appears to be a recent example of a well-known historical phenomenon that seems to be taking place across the world. It’s commonly known in American political science as the “rally-around-the-flag” effect, and has a long history. What’s most unusual about the US phenomenon today is how small this effect is in 2020 - and it most likely gives us little new information about what will happen in the November elections.

What is the rally around the flag?

It’s well-known that in times of war, particularly right at the beginning, approval ratings for the US President tend to rise. This concept was first laid out in a 1970 paper by John Mueller categorizing international events which drive Presidential popularity - particularly those which are international, involve the President directly, and are “specific, dramatic, and sharply focused” [Cambridge University Press]. Mueller called this “rallying around the flag” - the idea is that in times of national crisis or threat the person of the President stands in for the idea of the nation.

The coronavirus crisis is not that different from the onset of military hostilities. The nation is being called to action, and citizens to make personal sacrifices. Some of these sacrifices are simpler and easier - staying home for those who can. Some are more challenging, like doctors and nurses who are bravely stepping into harm’s way. But it’s not surprising that the same externally-imposed challenge could provoke a similar response.

Comparative Perspective

It doesn’t just make sense, but it’s also happening across the world. In the other western nations suffering their own severe coronavirus outbreaks, leaders are generally seeing a sudden spike in their popularity. In Canada the less-than-incredibly-popular Trudeau has skyrocketed in popularity [CBC]. In France, Macron has gone from despised to slightly-above-water [Reuters]. In the UK, Johnson is enjoying a rapid rise in popularity.

But a picture is worth a thousand words.

Thanks to online polling firm Morning Consult [link], we can see that a virus-induced approval bump is more the rule than the exception. In fact, the most noticeable thing is that relative to most other Western democracies, Trump’s rise in approval ratings is incredibly modest, going from -10 net approval to a whopping -5. It also pales in comparison to what is going on at the state level, where New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is at the heart of the pandemic and has seen an incredible spike in popularity [Siena College Research Institute] from ~0 net approval to

Compared to other nations or state-level opinion it’s remarkable how static Presidential approval ratings have been in this crisis.

Historical Perspective: The First Gulf War

They say the past is another country - and the past provides some useful context here too. American Presidents have seen rally-around-the-flag effects that put Cuomo to shame - and then gone on to lose reelection. The most dramatic was in the not-so-distant past of 1991, when Americans were going crazy for perhaps the most popular President in American history: George Herbert Walker Bush.

That may seem strange to you but it’s true nonetheless. The first President Bush saw perhaps the clearest and most dramatic example of the rally-around-the-flag effect with the launch of the short, dramatic, and victorious Gulf War in 1991 [Gallup].

For a brief shining moment, President George HW Bush was perhaps the most well-liked President ever, with an incredibly 90%+ approval rating. In the 50s people liked Ike, but in 1991 they adored George. But this popularity was not long for the world, as his brief and shining moment in the sun was accompanied by the early 1990s recession. Unemployment was climbing and kept on climbing to a peak in mid-1992, which was the nadir of Bush’s popularity. He ended up seeing a third-party challenger from the right (sort of?) in Ross Perot and lost to Bill Clinton. Bush ended up garnering a miserable 37% of the vote [Wikipedia].

While it seems odd, the President’s growing approval ratings are unsurprising when put in an international or historical context. But it probably teaches us very little about the strength of his candidacy in 2020. In fact, recent polling analysis from political scientists Robert Griffin and John Sides suggests the growth in approval may be something of a “sympathy bump” from Democrat-leaning voters unlikely to seriously consider voting for him [Washington Post]. Events, as always, are likely to be the main factor in determining what changes between now and November.