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Professor Tim Groeling in the News! LA Times Op-Ed: A virus is raging. The economy is in free fall. Why Trump’s approval rating is still going up
April 6, 2020

LA Times - The number of cases of COVID-19 is soaring in the United States. The economy is in free fall. Tens of millions of Americans are locked down in their homes. Hospitals around the country are becoming overwhelmed by the day. The U.S. is arguably facing its most severe crisis since World War II.

Yet despite the worsening pandemic and withering criticism of President Trump’s performance by public health experts and media pundits, his overall approval rating is up 5 percentage points in the most recent weekly Gallup poll. For only the second time in his presidency, Gallup found more Americans approving (49%) than disapproving (45%) of his job performance. Some 60% gave him positive reviews for his handling of the pandemic. 

What accounts for this?

Scholars refer to the spike in presidential approval ratings that sometimes accompanies the nation’s darkest times as the “rally-round-the-flag” effect. Such rallies can follow sudden, dramatic crises, such as the onset of a war. Franklin Roosevelt’s approval rating rose by 11 percentage points after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. George W. Bush saw his approval ratings spike by 35 points within four days of 9/11, the largest approval rally ever recorded.

But this doesn’t always happen. Whether a president wins a surge in public approval depends on several factors beyond just rising patriotism in times of national crisis. Those factors may explain why Trump is benefiting now.

For instance, the political scientist Richard Brody has shown that rallies typically occur only when the president enjoys bipartisan congressional support for his crisis management. In my work with Tim Groeling, I’ve found that public approval ratings improve with large-scale crises, such as overseas ground invasions, and that praise from opposition party leaders matters most of all, because it is highly credible to their fellow partisans (in this instance, Democrats). I’ve also found that the rise in approval ratings comes largely from opposition partisans and independents (the president’s supporters continue to support him), while less-popular presidents tend to gain larger rallies, simply because they have more room to improve.

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