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Calbuzz: Why Trump's Poll Boost is a Bump -- Not a Spike


(Some regular readers, displeased with President Trump's handling of the COVID-19 crisis, have asked Newsmakers to explain the sudden increase in approval of his job performance in public opinion surveys. Today we're posting a column of reported commentary by political journalist Phil Trounstine, co-founder of Calbuzz.com and an expert on political polling, that addresses the questions).


Many thoughtful people who have witnessed the frequent displays of misinformation and ignorance by Donald Trump in recent news conferences about the coronavirus crisis found themselves ready to slit their wrists when they saw the president’s approval rating go up to 49% in the latest Gallup Poll this week.

Fear not. As Abraham Lincoln may or may not have said: You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.


What we’re seeing is known in the polling and political science business as the rally effect – “the sudden and substantial increase in public approval of the president that occurs in response to certain kinds of dramatic international events involving the United States.”

It fades away.



A walk down memory lane. “Historically, presidential job approval has increased when the nation is under threat,” according to Gallup senior editor Jeffrey M. Jones.

“Every president from Franklin Roosevelt through George W. Bush saw their approval rating surge at least 10 points after a significant national event of this kind. [George W.] Bush’s 35-point increase after 9/11 is the most notable rally effect on record. During these rallies, independents and supporters of the opposing party to the president typically show heightened support for the commander in chief.”


Here’s a recent summary, aggregated in Wikipedia:


  • Cuban Missile Crisis: According to Gallup polls, President John F. Kennedy‘s approval rating in early October 1962 was at 61%. By November, after the crisis had passed, Kennedy’s approval rose to 74%. The spike in approval peaked in December 1962 at 76%. Kennedy’s approval rating slowly decreased again until it reached the pre-crisis level of 61% in June 1963.


  • Iran hostage crisis: According to Gallup polls, President Jimmy Carter quickly gained 26 percentage points, jumping from 32 to 58% approval following the initial seizure of the U.S. embassy in Tehran in November 1979. However, Carter’s handling of the crisis caused popular support to decrease, and by November 1980 Carter had returned to his pre-crisis approval rating.


  • Operation Desert Storm (Persian Gulf War): According to Gallup polls, President George H. W. Bush was rated at 59% approval in January 1991, but following the success of Operation Desert Storm, Bush enjoyed a peak 89% approval rating in February 1991. From there, Bush’s approval rating slowly decreased, reaching the pre-crisis level of 61% in October 1991.


  • Following the September 11 attacks in 2001, President George W. Bush received an unprecedented increase in his approval rating. On September 10, Bush had a Gallup Poll rating of 51%. By September 15, his approval rate had increased by 34 percentage points to 85%. Just a week later, Bush was at 90%, the highest presidential approval rating ever. Over a year after the attacks occurred, Bush still received higher approval than he did before 9/11 (68% in November 2002). Both the size and duration of Bush’s popularity after 9/11 are believed to be the largest of any post-crisis boost. Many people believe that this popularity gave Bush a mandate and eventually the political leverage to begin the War in Iraq.


  • Death of Osama bin Laden: According to Gallup polls, President Barack Obama received a 6% bump in his Presidential approving ratings, jumping from 46% in the three days before the mission (April 29 – May 1) to a 52% in the 3 days after the mission (May 2–4). The rally effect didn’t last long, as Obama’s approval ratings were back down to 46% by June 30.


A secondary role. Majority disapproval of Trump is deeply embedded in America's polarized public opinion about national politics, so take it to the bank that at the moment he is benefiting from a temporary bump, not a dramatic long-term upward spike in his approval rating.


Along with the rally effect, the sudden flurry of his appearances at news briefings, purporting to be in command, is influencing some, unlike Calbuzz, who do not hang on every twist and turn of this historic story.


“Trump, who campaigned for the presidency by casting himself as a great dealmaker and who prides himself on being the ultimate decider, has sought to leave the impression through his daily public appearances of being in total control of America’s response to the pandemic," wrote Philip Rucker, White House Bureau Chief of the Washington Post.


“In reality, the president has been playing a secondary role in some key areas," Rucker added.


For a deeper dive into the whole rally effect, check out an excellent new analysis by Democratic pollster Stanley Greenberg’s in the Atlantic.




Fun with numbers. It also is notable that while Gallup had Trump's approval-disapproval rating at 49-to-45 percent, polling by both Politico and Reuters has it 45-to-52 percent, approve-disapprove The Hill has it 50-to-50 and YouGov has it 47-to-51 — evidence that Trump’s bump is more molehill than mountain.


Whether Joe Biden, Trump’s almost-certain Democratic challenger, can use Trump’s underwhelming performance to demonstrate that he represents hope for a better White House remains to be seen.


As does Biden, most days.


How’s this for a Democratic election slogan: He Certainly Couldn’t Do Worse.



Phil Trounstine is the former political editor of the San Jose Mercury News, former communications director for California Gov. Gray Davis and the founder and former director of the Survey and Policy Research Institute at San Jose State University where he created the Silicon Valley and California Consumer Confidence Indices. He is co-author of “Movers and Shakers: The Study of Community Power” and, with Jerry Roberts, founded Calbuzz.

Images: Dr. Anthony Fauci face palms at Trump's remarks at a coronavirus press conference (frame grab MSNBC); President George W. Bush's famous "bullhorn moment" after the 9/11 attacks (Townhall); Trump behind Vice President Pence, who leads the White House task force on the pandemic; Joe Biden; Phil Trounstine.

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