New survey shows ‘systematic decline’ in domestic approval for US leaders

A person wearing a mask to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus walks past a U.S. flag displayed in a window in Boston on July 7, 2020. AP Photo/Steven Senne

Public approval of state governors and President Donald Trump over their response to the COVID-19 crisis has dropped over the last couple of months, although Republican governors in Democrat-leaning states have the highest approval, and the vast majority of governors have significantly higher approval ratings than the president, according to a new national survey led by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers universities.

David Lazer is university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences with joint appointments in the College of Social Sciences and Humanities and the Khoury College of Computer Sciences at Northeastern. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern University

The findings—released this week amid a record-breaking increase in new cases of SARS-CoV-2, which prompted some states to pause reopening plans—revealed people’s attitudes toward the response to the crisis of the president and their states’ governors. It is the fifth in a series of surveys the researchers have been conducting since April examining attitudes and behaviors regarding COVID-19 in the United States. 

David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences at Northeastern, and one of the researchers who conducted the study, says the latest numbers suggest “a systematic decline in approval for the president and 90 percent of the governors.”

The researchers surveyed 22,501 residents across all 50 states and the District of Columbia between June 12 and June 28, and found that the average governor has experienced a 10-point decline in approval between April and June. Only five states—New Jersey, Hawaii, Michigan, South Dakota and Vermont—saw their governors’ approval ratings increase; approval rates declined in the other 45, according to the report.

The least popular governors are Republicans in Republican-leaning states, the survey found. Of the 10 governors with approval ratings below 45 percent, eight are in states that lean Republican. 

“That’s surprising in a world where partisanship seems so overwhelmingly important,” Lazer says.

The governors of states that were hardest hit early in the pandemic—although they saw a drop in approval of their response to the crisis—still maintained higher ratings than other governors throughout the crisis, according to the report.

The governors of Arizona, Texas, Florida and Georgia have among the worst ratings, says Lazer.

Doug Ducey, the governor of Arizona, is the only governor with a lower rating than Trump, researchers found, and has the lowest approval for his COVID-19 response of any governor in the country, dropping from a high of 57 percent in early May to 32 percent in late June.

Ducey’s decision to reopen in May drew strong opposition from Arizona’s residents. In late May, only 15 percent of survey participants from that state supported reopening immediately, and 57 percent supported reopening no earlier than four weeks in the future, the survey found. A majority of Republicans opposed immediate reopening during this period.

Since Arizona has reopened, the number of daily new cases in the state has increased from 495 on May 15 to 4,877 on July 1, causing Ducey to order a partial re-closing of businesses, such as bars, movie theaters, and gyms. 

His case, the researchers note, “offers a cautionary tale of the rapid interplay of politics, policy, and outcomes in the COVID era.”

According to the report, Trump’s handling of the crisis, which was rated lower than that of all 50 governors, has declined further, by eight points on average. The president’s rating is fairly low everywhere, the survey found, hovering around 50 percent in Montana, Wyoming, and North Dakota, and lower everywhere else.

“It isn’t just that in the Northeast, he’s unpopular; in other places he’s popular,” Lazer says. “At best, people are lukewarm about him, and at worst his ratings are very low.”

The survey found that the decline in support for Trump’s handling of the crisis is similar across political parties, race and ethnicity, age, income, and education. His popularity has declined from 56 percent to 44 percent among older respondents with a high school education or less, according to the report. Researchers found there was a decline of 10 to 12 points among lower-income and less-educated white respondents, as well as a precipitous drop from 40 percent to 26 percent among younger white respondents.

Three months ago, the president’s prospects for re-election were “within firing range,” says Lazer. That’s not so much the case now, he says.

“Right now, it would be exceedingly unlikely for him to win, but what’s going to happen with COVID-19 is somewhat unpredictable, and people’s views of his response might change over the next four months,” he says.

Lazer predicts that Trump’s re-election prospects will almost certainly be predicated upon the trajectory of the coronavirus outbreak. If the rate of cases and fatalities start to decline, or there’s a wider discussion about treatments, say, the president could seize the opportunity to take credit for those successes. Conversely, says Lazer, if the situation were to get worse, the blame could well be pinned on Trump.

“Four months from now, I’d say there’s enough time where things can happen—significant things can happen,” says Lazer.

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