Could one of the more controversial decisions made in the early stages of the coronavirus crisis have set the stage for Donald Trump’s leadership moment? Like most if not all other polling series, Pew Research sees Trump hitting the peak overall approval rating of his presidency, albeit a lower peak than in some other series. While his approval is driven by partisan division, just as in yesterday’s ABC News/Washington Post poll, Trump’s boost is attributable to gains from some surprising demographics:
Opinions about how President Donald Trump is handling the crisis are less positive, and more divided by partisanship. Nearly half of adults (48%) say Trump is doing an excellent or good job responding to the outbreak; an overwhelming majority of Republicans (83%) express positive views, compared with just 18% of Democrats.
However, Trump’s overall job rating is higher than it has been since the first few months of his presidency. Currently, 45% approve of the way he is handling his job as president, while 52% disapprove. In January, 40% approved of Trump’s job performance.
Since then, Trump’s job approval has increased significantly among a number of groups, including members of both parties, women (from 37% in January to 44% today), black adults (from 8% to 18%) and Hispanic adults (from 27% to 37%).
Those advances would be fatal to Democrats in a national election, assuming Trump could sustain them. Those are likely part of a rally effect that have benefited other presidents to stronger degrees. Both Bush presidencies saw massive approval increases at the start of wars, for instance, but Bush 41’s astronomical approval rating in early 1991 didn’t do him much good in late 1992.
Still, we have enough data to show that this increase is real, even if it’s not certain that it will last. Trump’s RealClearPolitics average for aggregated approval ratings (which doesn’t yet include this Pew poll) shows a sharp uptick, and the gap between approval and disapproval the narrowest since his inauguration:
What beyond a normal rally effect might be driving this boost? The public has overwhelmingly approved of the measures taken by state and local officials to enforce social distancing, and mostly on a bipartisan basis. But by far the most popular and least partisan policy is two imposed by Trump himself — decisions that prompted criticism and accusations of racism when Trump made them:
The restriction on travel to and from China got imposed at the end of January. At the time, Joe Biden accused Trump of “hysteria and xenophobia — hysterical xenophobia” for cutting off that potential transmission source. When Trump imposed a similar restriction on the EU’s Schengen Zone countries this month, the media and the EU accused Trump of overreacting. In both cases, however, the countries impacted erected their own travel barriers shortly afterward, including new border enforcement in the previously free-movement Schengen zone. That made Trump look more like a visionary than a hysteric, and nearly every American agrees just a few weeks later.
These early and decisive moves to contain the coronavirus spread appear to have paid off, both as an epidemiological and political strategy. It’s easily the most popular and least partisan policy of the Great Hunkering Down of 2020, and it’s the only one that belongs entirely to Trump. The White House has issued guidelines on the other policies, but those have been imposed by governors, not the federal government. Trump benefits from the popularity of these policies to the extent he offers support for them, but he’s likely to get a continuing and lasting boost from the travel bans that his opponents first ridiculed — and they will have to explain their own hysterical reaction to them at some point, especially Biden.
This boost seems notably small for the scope of such a crisis, but if it lasts, it might create an entirely new arithmetic for the 2020 election.