What Drove President Trump’s Polling Bump?

While many workers have been sent home, pollsters have continued to examine public opinion about how every level of government has handled the COVID-19 outbreak.  After social distancing guidelines had been issued across the country, President Trump’s approval ratings rose to as high as 49% among registered voters in one Washington Post poll. A Selzer Poll (considered by many to be the top pollster in America) found President Trump had a +3 net approval among all Americans. This was his highest net approval in a nationwide Selzer Poll since he took office in 2017. President Trump’s approval increase is part of a phenomenon in public opinion that has occurred during national disasters in the past. For example, Jimmy Carter’s approval increased after hundreds of Americans were taken hostage in Iran in 1979 and George W. Bush’s approval rating increased after 9/11.  An increase in approval ratings after major tragedies is colloquially known as a “rally around the flag” effect. However, these topline numbers do not provide substantive insights about why public opinion is changing and what the lasting effect will be.

A pollster can better explain a “rally around the flag” effect by layering different questions into a poll. This occurs when some questions in a poll are only asked to respondents that answer a prior question in a certain way. A Navigator Research poll taken last week provides a great example how of these types of questions can explain President Trump’s approval bounce. The poll found that 50% of registered voters approved of how the President was handling the pandemic. However, 26% of these same voters, or 13% of all registered voters, stated that their support was “because it is important to be supportive of President Trump during this time of national crisis” as opposed to “because Trump has shown strong leadership and taken decisive action throughout the crisis.” The former bucket of voters who approve of the President are exactly the type of constituency that provides a “rally around the flag” effect. This constituency could also explain why the President’s approval rating is dipping back down. As new polls come out, it will be important to look for information from polls with layered questions, such as the Navigator poll, to better understand not just how public opinion is changing, but why it is changing.

Our Take:

After the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US, President Trump’s approval rating ticked up to its highest point since January 2017. This bump in his approval rating is indicative of a “rally around the flag” effect that is common during national crises. One way to quantify this effect is to look at secondary questions asked only to certain respondents. These questions help identify why public opinion is changing. Results from polls that ask these secondary questions, such as the Navigator poll, provide evidence that a sizeable part of the President’s higher approval rating is driven by this rally around the flag effect and also could provide hints as to why this bounce has started to fade.

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