Viewpoints on Political Leadership in Times of Crisis
In times of crisis, the public looks to political leadership. When there is a threat or attack we often see a “rally round the flag” effect where the leader’s approval rating rises sharply. For example, following the attacks of 9/11, President George W. Bush’s approval rating jumped to 90 percent, though those rally effects also diminished quickly (Eichelburg, et. al., 2006; Fox, 2009.)
However, not all leaders benefit from rally effects in every crisis. While many foreign leaders and U.S. governors are getting a boost from rally effects during the COVID-19 epidemic, President Trump saw only a modest, temporary bump in his approval ratings.
One possible explanation for the lack of a rally is party polarization in the U.S. It’s no secret that Republicans and Democrats are increasingly divided and hostile toward each other (Mason, 2019.) In a crisis, people may feel anxiety and will look for sources of information to alleviate that anxiety. However, partisans do not see members of the other party as sources of trustworthy information (Hetherington & Rudolph, 2015.)
As a result, people may turn to nonpartisan sources like the CDC, but they will be less likely to rally to partisan leaders (Albertson & Gadarian, 2015.)
We can see this effect manifest itself in polling on President Trump’s handling of the crisis. There is a clear partisan gap between Democrats and Republicans. Few Democrats approve of President Trump’s handling of the crisis or trust him to provide accurate information about the epidemic. This dynamic is likely exacerbated by the president’s combative style. By continuing to attack Democratic leaders, the president is highlighting partisan differences and priming polarization.
In contrast to the president, some governors like Mike DeWine have seen their approval numbers skyrocket. In part, that may be because Governor DeWine has taken a nonpartisan approach in media appearances and elevated Ohio Department of Health director Amy Acton.
But it is not simply a question of style, but also substance. Support for Governor DeWine and other governors, such as Andew Cuomo (NY), Gretchen Whitmer (MI) and Roy Cooper (NC) may be driven by a rally effect. Of course, what those governors have in common is not partisanship, but that they have all enacted aggressive public health measures that are very popular. Anti-lockdown protesters may have received a great deal of media coverage (and the support of President Trump), but their argument is rejected by a large, bipartisan majority of Americans.
Polls have consistently shown that Americans are concerned about the economy — but much more concerned about COVID-19. It may be too early to be conclusive, but it does appear that governors who have been more aggressive and prioritized public health over restarting the economy are seeing a bigger boost in popularity.
If so, these effects might also last longer than a typical rally since they reflect the public’s substantive approval of a major public policy.
At the moment, President Trump appears to have squandered the opportunity for his own rally effect. There may yet be time to salvage his popularity, though. To do so, he should tone down partisan attacks, refocus on public health concerns rather than economic concerns and adopt policies that have a broad, bipartisan appeal rather than playing to his own base.
In other words, he has to stop being Donald Trump and try being Mike DeWine.
Albertson, B., & Gadarian, S. (2015). Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Eichenberg, R. C., Stoll, R. J., & Lebo, M. (2006). War president: The approval ratings of George W.
Bush. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 50(6), 783–808.
Fox, G.T. (2009). Partisan divide on war and the economy: Presidential approval of G.W. Bush. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 53(6): 905-933
Hetherington, M.J., & Rudolph, T.J. (2015). Why Washington Won’t Work: Polarization, Political Trust and the Governing Crisis. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Mason, L. (2018.) Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became our Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.