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Biden outpaces Trump by double digits in handling the pandemic, new survey shows

President Joe Biden speaks about the COVID-19 pandemic during a prime-time address from the East Room of the White House on March 11, 2021, in Washington. AP Photo by Andrew Harnik

President Joe Biden’s handling of the pandemic in the early months of his term received higher marks from U.S. residents than former President Donald Trump earned in his final days in office, according to a new study by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern, and Rutgers. Meanwhile, governors’ pandemic approval ratings have declined slightly, according to the study.

“Everyone made mistakes during the crisis, but Biden actually came in with an opportunity to do a lot of things right in a way that other leaders have not had,” says David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences, of his pandemic research into presidential and gubernatorial approval ratings.

Biden’s coronavirus management approval rating stood at 53 percent in a poll taken about two months after he moved into the Oval Office. That figure exceeds Trump’s support in December, his last full month in the White House, in 44 states. Trump bested Biden in the other six states, all of them Republican-leaning. They include Arkansas, Louisiana, and Wyoming.

Trump’s support slipped to 32 percent in December from 35 percent in October.

The higher numbers for Biden weren’t entirely surprising given Trump’s historically low COVID-19 approvals, explains David Lazer, university distinguished professor of political science and computer and information sciences at Northeastern, and one of the researchers who conducted the study.

Another reason for Biden’s larger support in the early going could be the goodwill afforded a new president, Lazer adds.

“He’s still in his honeymoon period,” he says.

That also may explain why Biden outpaced at least 17 Democratic governors who have been in office since the virus hit last year.

“He hasn’t had much time to make mistakes yet,” Lazer explains. “Everyone made mistakes during the crisis, but Biden actually came in with an opportunity to do a lot of things right in a way that other leaders have not had.”

The president also may be the beneficiary of good timing. He was sworn in right around the time in late January when virus-related death counts in the United States hit an apex, and were  destined to drop afterward. “Even if Trump had won, the death count would have dropped,” Lazer says. “Biden’s timing was auspicious.”

The same can’t be said for the nation’s governors, whose approval ratings fell slightly since the last survey was taken, dropping from 48 percent in October to 46 percent in February. It was part of a long-term decline since the survey began in April 2020, when it was 64 percent, researchers noted.

Approval ratings nosedived for two governors in particular, California’s Gavin Newsom and New York’s Andrew Cuomo.

The survey showed Newsom’s support dropping to 45 percent in February from 70 percent in April. Cuomo did slightly better at 53 percent vs. 70 percent in the same period. Early on, Cuomo’s daily press briefings made him a hit on social media and earned him an Emmy “for his masterful use of television to inform and calm people around the world.”

Since then, however, the New York attorney general opened an investigation into allegations that members of the Cuomo administration pushed state health officials to omit nursing home residents who died in hospitals from COVID-19 from the death toll to make the numbers seem lower than they actually were.

A separate investigation involving workplace sexual harassment is also underway against Cuomo. The Democrat has said he never touched anyone inappropriately and has refused calls from within his party to step down.

“The other thing that may have hurt Cuomo is that Trump is gone,” says Lazer. “There are more Cuomo headlines on the front page that would have been crowded out by Trump otherwise.”

In California, meanwhile, Newsom is facing a recall effort over his handling of the pandemic. Petition organizers say they have secured more than the required number of signatures to put the recall motion on the ballot later this year. Counties have until the end of April to verify the signatures.

“The reality is, it looks like it’s going on the ballot,” Newsom said at a press conference last week. “We will fight it, we will defeat it. At the same time, it’s not going to keep me from focusing on my job 24-7.”

Northeastern’s Lazer puts Newsom’s 45 percent approval rating in perspective. Though it has fallen precipitously, it’s right in line with the national average for all state chief executives when the latest poll of 20,000 people was taken in February.

“People in general are grumpy about their governors and most states do not have recall provisions like California does,” he points out.

One of the things to watch out for as the recall effort unfurls over the next few months is whether  the vaccine effort picks up steam, schools open, and Californians start to feel pretty good about life returning to normal.

“It’ll be interesting to see how much damage he retains and how much people assess the vaccine rollout after a bumpy start,” says Lazer.

For media inquiries, please contact media@northeastern.edu.

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