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Ground Game

Why Trump’s approval rating has gone up

President Donald Trump.AL DRAGO/NYT

More Americans have died from coronavirus than in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Thousands more are so sick they are in hospitals, which could soon be overwhelmed. The stock market is way down. Millions filed for unemployment in the past few weeks. American life — from schools to workplaces to vacations to churches — are all on pause.

Are most Americans better off than they were 3½ years ago? No. But you want to know who is? President Trump.

Approval ratings of his presidency have never been higher. In the last week, Trump’s approval rating has been around 49 percent in various polls. Gallup’s most recent weekly poll showed Trump at 49 percent approval and 45 percent disapproval. This was only the second time in his presidency where his approval number was better than his disapproval number.


The same poll found that 60 percent approved of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. The number was up from earlier, when the administration was criticized for being flat-footed in its response.

There are three things going on here.

1. The “rally-behind-the-flag” effect

Scholars of American history note that in wartime or other challenging moments, Americans typically rally behind the president. It happened for Franklin D. Roosevelt after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, George H.W. Bush during the Gulf War, and his son, George W. Bush, saw his approval ratings spike the largest amount in American polling history after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Right now, America is in a moment of crisis, although not one that is automatically tied to patriotism like when another country attacks. Trump has called this moment a war, and in many ways, he is right. But it is a different type of war, fought by science, not bombs. And the call to the nation’s citizens isn’t to go out and enlist, but to stay home.


So far, the most interesting thing is that Trump’s bump of a few points isn’t nearly the same type of “rally-behind-the-flag” poll bumps other presidents have had. Then again, we are in a deeply polarized moment in the nation’s history.

2. The president is controlling the message

Not unlike during his 2016 presidential campaign, Trump is suddenly on television all the time. By contrast, his opponents, particularly the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Joe Biden, is not. Beyond some Democratic super PAC television ads there is no sustained criticism. On television, doctors have replaced pundits. On Facebook, the discussion is of the crisis more than it is of pure politics. Meanwhile, Trump’s press conferences are carried on television for hours on end and without real-time rebuttals. It is easy to understand why a number of independent voters are giving Trump better marks, as polling suggests they are doing.

3. Even Democrats are praising him

The Mueller report is over. Impeachment is a thing of the past. In fact, Democratic governors from California, New York, and Washington state are even saying positive things about Trump in the midst of the crisis. After all, they need the federal government’s help. And Capitol Hill Democrats? They just worked with Trump to quickly pass three different stimulus bills. Remember the last one passed the US Senate, 96-0.

But will it last?

Two things still appear to be true. First is that the coronavirus may be with us until though the November election — and it is possible that Trump could sustain his positive poll numbers.


Second, despite his recent poll bump, Trump is still behind Biden in national polling. In the latest Fox News poll, for example, Biden leads nationwide among a random sample of registered voters, 49 percent to 40 percent.

That said, trying to predict what will happen later this week is hard. What will happen in November? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.