Voters are turning against Trump because of his leadership in the pandemic

Thursday, April 23rd, 2020

This article by GQR Managing Partners Anna Greenberg & Jeremy Rosner was originally published by The Washington Post on April 23, 2020. 

In times of crisis, Americans look for strong presidential leadership and typically give presidents the benefit of the doubt. People “rally around the flag” and look for solace and a path ahead. A few months into the covid-19 crisis, however, that yearning is going unmet, and public doubts about President Trump are multiplying, according to an online survey of 2,195 registered voters conducted by our firm in mid-April. Much will change between now and November, but at this point, the polls suggest Trump is quickly losing America’s confidence when it comes to battling the covid-19 pandemic.

At the same time, despite brutal recent economic numbers — 26 million Americans have filed unemployment claims over the past month — our survey respondents give Trump slightly better marks on managing the economy than on his performance with respect to the pandemic (or overall). His fate on Election Day in November could hinge on whether that confidence in his economic management holds up, and whether it can counterbalance criticism related to the pandemic.

The “rally around the flag” effect is well known: President Jimmy Carter’s approval rating soared 21 points shortly after Iran seized U.S. hostages, and George W. Bush’s rose 35 percentage points after 9/11. But Trump’s approval rating showed a much smaller boost after the novel coronavirus struck: It went from 53 percent disapprove, 44 percent approve on March 11, to 49 percent disapprove, 47 percent approve on March 27. The latest figures show it at 51 percent disapprove, 46 percent approve. In short, he lost most of his bump in a matter of weeks.

Other world leaders, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, also saw their initial approval gains decline as the coronavirus crisis dragged on, but Trump’s poor standing is particularly notable, as his gain was smaller and then evaporated.

At the broadest level, we found the expected political polarization: Overall, 43 percent approved of Trump’s performance in handling the coronavirus. A mere 6 percent of Democrats approved, as did 39 percent of independents — while 92 percent of Republicans held a favorable view.

But Trump really needs those independents, who made up 32 percent of the electorate, compared with 38 percent for Democrats and 31 percent of Republicans — and he seems to be losing them.

Beyond partisanship, we looked closely at what factors were undermining Trump’s job performance, examining various aspects of presidential leadership during the coronavirus crisis. We presented people with 16 qualities that a leader might bring to the fight against the pandemic and asked them to rank their top four. Fifty-two percent chose “follows the advice of scientists and other experts” as one of their top four qualities; 48 percent picked “communicates truthfully to the public”; 42 percent selected “doing what’s right even if it is unpopular”; and 35 percent went with “acts quickly.” (Other choices included displaying compassion and offering comfort, learning from mistakes and making bold decisions.)

There was rough agreement across party lines on which leadership qualities mattered, even if Democrats and Republicans ranked them slightly differently. (Democrats were more likely than Republicans to value a leader who listens to experts while Republicans were more likely to cite doing what’s right, regardless of popularity.)

Many people believe that Trump lacks the qualities they most value. Sixty-eight percent of those who said it is very important that a leader “follows the advice of scientists and other experts,” said this does not describe Trump “very well” or “well” (as opposed to “not very well” or “not well at all”). Sixty-three percent who want truthful communication said Trump fails to provide it. Fifty-two percent of those who want their leaders to “act quickly” said that Trump doesn’t.

He did better on “making bold decisions” (84 percent of those who consider that a key attribute said it describes him well), “holding people accountable for delivering help” (66 percent said it describes him well) and “willing to do what’s right even when unpopular” (59 percent) — but fewer voters picked those qualities, and they skewed heavily Republican.

The main negative findings are driven not just by the views of Democrats but also independentswho combined make up about 70 percent of the electorate. A lopsided 67 percent of independents say the United States could have done a better job on handling the pandemic — and a majority blames Trump for the shortcomings.

Moreover, Trump’s aggressive push to “open up the country for business” — over efforts to contain the virus — is something only Republicans endorse (and even they have mixed feelings). Although a big majority of Americans are understandably concerned about the economic impact of the pandemic, 68 percent of those we polled disagree with the statement, “We need to ease up on coronavirus restrictions in order to get the economy working again, even if means spreading the virus.”

For Democrats, there’s a catch, however. Despite his vulnerabilities, Trump still retains a good deal of the public’s trust on managing the economy. We found that Trump’s 47 percent job approval rating on the economy is 3 points higher than his 44 percent job approval overall. In fact, he was tied with Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on the question of who would better manage the economy — even though 50 percent said they would vote for Biden, versus 42 percent for Trump.

In national online focus groups of registered voters we conducted, to supplement the survey, many swing voters said they trust Trump to fix the economy because of his business background and because he oversaw a strong economy before the covid-19-related crash.

It is hard to know whether such views about Trump’s economic prowess will endure six more months of high unemployment and sharp economic distress. But one can imagine that, by the fall, while the economy will be in deep trouble, the pandemic may have waned to some degree. In that context, many voters may cast their ballot based on who will be best at getting America back to work. Unless Biden and the Democrats start crafting a clearer and more compelling economic narrative, they may find — to their shock — that Trump could win reelection despite voters thinking he bungled the response to the coronavirus.

View and download the Frequency Questionnaire HERE.