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Apple '21: Trump’s Lackluster Approval Bump

While many liberals have criticized Trump’s response to the coronavirus crisis — for calling it a hoax, comparing it to the flu and peddling hydroxychloroquine as a cure (although it is only in the process of being clinically tested), the list goes on — they seem even more bewildered by his approval ratings. According to FiveThirtyEight, on March 29 Trump had an approval rating of 45.8 percent, his highest since January 24, 2017. For many people, this begs the question: How can Trump be in such a good position after his obvious mishandling of the pandemic? But Democrats shouldn’t worry, as this approval surge may not be a good sign for Trump. It’s not nearly as large as the approval bumps seen in past national crises, and if it follows their trajectories, it won’t persist for long. Come election time, Trump may be in serious trouble.

Trump may be benefiting from an increased sense of national unity that generally accompanies moments of national crisis, but history tells us that this surge won’t last long. In 1979, after the Iran hostage crisis began, Jimmy Carter’s approval rating rose by almost 30 points. Over time, as the negotiations continued, Carter’s approval started falling, and by 1980, it  had fallen to pre-crisis levels. Something similar happened with George H.W. Bush. After Operation Desert Storm, his rating rose 18 points. However, like Carter, Bush’s approval soon fell, as the positive surge in national support was not enough for Bush to maintain popularity against the backdrop of a sputtering economy. Trump’s situation is a confluence of both these leaders’, as he mishandles a crisis and the economy falters. In times of crisis, people tend to rally around their leaders to fight a common enemy. However, as time goes on and the leader fails to fix the situation, support dissolves. Carter, for example, was seen as weak and ineffectual as the U.S. Embassy in Tehran continued to be held hostage, and the American people voted accordingly as Reagan won one of the largest electoral victories in history. Both Bush and Carter saw these huge approval jumps less than a year before their re-election campaigns, elections that both of them lost, illustrating that a temporary approval bump soon before an election doesn’t necessarily bode well for Trump either.

In contrast to his predecessors, Trump has seen a relatively small bump during the COVID-19 crisis. His approval rating has risen only three or four points, well within the margin of error of most polls. Contrary to the fears of many liberals, this doesn’t show that his campaign is surging in the midst of this crisis. In fact, if the virus continues to spread in the way that public health experts expect it to, Trump’s approval may actually be negatively impacted by the crisis. At the moment, the states that have currently been the hardest hit have been Democratic-leaning ones, such as New York, California and New Jersey. In the more traditional swing states, like Florida and Michigan, most of the cases have occurred in the cities, like Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Detroit, all of which lean blue. In addition, Black and Hispanic people have been disproportionately affected in these blue areas. In New York State, for example, Black people make up 9 percent of the population but 17 percent of coronavirus victims.

With virus outbreaks centered in blue parts of the country, it makes sense that Trump’s support has not been negatively affected yet. However, in recent days rural communities have started to feel the effects as well, with two-thirds of rural counties now having at least one case. In the South, which propelled Trump to victory in 2016, public health officials are already worried about the disproportionate impact the virus will have there as it spreads, due to high levels of poverty, insufficient access to medical care and high prevalence of confounding medical conditions. As the virus continues to spread through rural America, it will become harder and harder for people who initially supported Trump’s efforts in the crisis to continue supporting him. Already in the past week, Trump’s approval rating has been falling slightly, as RealClearPolitics has him at 44.9 percent, down from 47.3 percent a week ago, and a new poll from Rasmussen — a conservative pollster — found Trump with 43 percent approval on April 9.

Even the most conservative voters may come to see that Trump’s conduct — and that of governors like Ron DeSantis and Brian Kemphas enabled the spread of the virus. Trump was the one who treated it as a hoax, who claimed that it would be contained quickly and who is now promoting a treatment which is not yet scientifically proven. As a result of his failed leadership, the United States is now the hardest hit country in the world. The pandemic has also upended his plans to campaign on a surging economy, as his erratic decision-making style — at a time that demands competence and resolve — continues to create uncertainty and fuel volatility in the markets, with the Dow jumping up and falling down 1000 points on a regular basis.

At this point, many voters have yet to see the worst of this virus; it will continue to spread and likely peak in parts of the country in the summer, closer to election season. The economic impact of this crisis will also likely be quite severe and long-lasting. As more swing states are affected by this virus, and it becomes more evident that Trump’s shortcomings cost American lives, the more likely that voters will sour on Trump. Trump, like many leaders, has gotten a boost as people rally around the flag during the COVID-19 crisis, but that bump has been anything but “huge,” and history has taught us that it will not last long. Trump’s mishandling of the virus, as devastating as it has been, may also be the wake up call the American electorate needs to realize, come November, that Trump is unfit to stay another four years.

Caleb Apple ’21 can be reached at Please send responses to this opinion to and op-eds to


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