On its surface, the new Washington Post-ABC News poll is the latest to offer good news for President Trump. His approval rating has reached a new high — as it has in other polls this week — and the overall view of his handling of the coronavirus outbreak is yet again positive.
But this poll, perhaps more than others, suggests just how temporary that bump might be.
In the poll, 48 percent approve of Trump’s overall job performance — the first time his approval has been higher than his disapproval (46 percent) in any Post-ABC poll. His approval on his handling of coronavirus is 51 percent, versus 45 percent negative. All of that is in line with other polls.
But the Post-ABC poll asked one very specific question on the coronavirus that doesn’t reflect so favorably on Trump. It asked people whether they thought Trump was too slow to respond to the crisis or whether he reacted with the right speed. Fully 58 percent of people said he was too slow, while just 38 percent said he reacted as quickly as he should have.
So 58 percent say he was too slow, but just 45 percent disapprove of his handling of it. In other words, at least 1 in 8 Americans believe Trump failed to recognize and act upon the severity of the situation in the early days of the crisis but still give him a positive grade.
That’s counterintuitive. This is a massive question when it comes to Trump’s stewardship of the situation, because the earliest response is so critical. But people seem to be able to look past that — for now, at least.
The most logical takeaway from that is that this is some kind of rally-around-the-flag effect that we often see in these situations. In times of crisis, polls regularly show people put aside partisanship in the name of national unity and suddenly support a president they didn’t previously like. As Gallup has noted, that rallying effect was more prevalent decades ago, when our country wasn’t quite so polarized, but it’s not shocking that it might apply to this situation now.
Another part of the poll also speaks to this potential temporary rallying effect.
Trump has made it abundantly clear that he’s worried about the outbreak depriving him of his calling-card issue in the 2020 election: the economy. As the Dow Jones industrial average at one point lost all of the huge gains registered during his presidency (and has since rebounded somewhat as Congress works toward passing a $2 trillion stimulus package), Trump has increasingly argued for a reopening of the economy.
But despite that market free-fall, Trump’s numbers on the economy actually jumped up. The Post-ABC poll shows 57 percent approve of his handling of the economy, versus just 38 percent who disapprove. His plus-19 net margin on that is higher than ever before. He also leads former vice president Joe Biden when it comes to which of them would be better to handle the economy 50-42.
This is again counterintuitive. It would be understandable if people didn’t blame Trump for the tanking stock market and would instead very logically blame the coronavirus outbreak. But to actually see your approval on the economy go up at a time in which economic indicators increasingly point in the direction of a recession? That speaks to a rallying effect that may not last.
The other key point here is that while Trump has gotten a bump, it’s significantly smaller than the kind of bumps we’re used to in these situations. Jimmy Carter, for instance, saw his approval rating jump double digits during the Iran hostage crisis. George W. Bush’s skyrocketed after 9/11. John F. Kennedy also went up double digits during the Cuban missile crisis. Bill Clinton rose by double-digits when his scandal came to light in 1998 and then again when he was impeached.
Trump’s bump, by contrast, is in the mid-single digits even in his best polls — and is closer to nil in others. Perhaps that’s partially a symptom of our polarization, but it doesn’t indicate a huge change in fundamentals for him.
And the finding that he was too slow to address the coronavirus threat is also ominous. If that holds, and the situation does get really bad, it won’t be a great logical leap for people to believe that he has made things worse. Ditto his recent call to reopen parts of the economy, which carries massive public health risks according to Trump’s own top health officials and comes at a time when polls show a strong majority support drastic measures to combat the virus.
Trump’s handling of this entire situation has been unsteady and consistently factually challenged. Many people are either not consuming this or are willing to look past it for now. And his most devoted supporters will likely continue to do so regardless of what happens from here on out. But that doesn’t mean it will always be thus for people in the middle. And this poll, for perhaps the first time, speaks to lingering doubts about how up-to-the-task he has been.
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