Wars are known to create a rally around the flag effect, where presidential approval skyrockets, as does trust in government. This was true for George H. W. Bush, and for George W. Bush after 9-11, so in political conditions not wholly unlike ours.
So far, Trump’s approval rating seems locked in, though we saw a bit of an uptick yesterday. Regardless, few people approve of him more or less than they did before the virus shut everything down. It seems like our political tribalization is preventing any movement in approval ratings. Remarkably, we were fairly polarized in 2001, but W still got a huge effect, and now Trump gets next to nothing.
So what’s going on? Why did 9-11 help W but the new coronavirus hasn’t helped Trump much?
Here’s my best guess. In the case of 9-11, everyone came to have the same beliefs about it pretty quickly (and this months before 9-11 was falsely tied to Iraq). The human death toll was immediate and visible, and the culprits were visible in many ways as well. Moreover, it was expected that there would be a military response, and so people geared up to support the troops and whomever was going to lead them.
Things are different with the virus. First, beliefs about the virus remain somewhat polarized. Second, the human death toll is not immediate and is far less visible, and cannot easily be tied to a human culprit. Moreover, while we all have to change our behavior to beat the virus, we aren’t going to war. People aren’t going to get shot and killed fighting against an enemy so the bonding effect is smaller.
And yet, you would still expect something of a rally, right? What else is going on? Trump was already quite unpopular, far moreso than W, and people’s beliefs about him are extremely polarized, more than they were about W, even following the 2000 election. Further, Trump has had an inconsistent response to the virus, which I think has dampened the rallying effect as well. But if his behavior is more consistently seen as positive, then we should expect a modest rallying effect. I can imagine his approval rating getting up to 60% or s0, though that would surprise me somewhat. But it could go above 50% for a few weeks. It might be enough to win the election depending on how things go, but right now both Trump and Biden are below 50%!