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  • Matthew Green

Rally (Mostly) ‘Round the (State) Flag

Florida Governor Ron DeSantis

In an existential crisis, citizens frequently unite behind their political leaders. This “rally ‘round the flag” effect is well-documented, especially in the United States, where public support for the president can shoot up dramatically in times of emergency. George W. Bush benefited from a surge in popularity after the September 11 terrorist attacks, for example, as well as during the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Both regional polls and national surveys (e.g. here, here, and here) suggest that the coronavirus pandemic is having the same effect for state governors. Since states have been on the front lines in combating the virus, and governors like Andrew Cuomo of New York have been high-profile leaders during the epidemic, this makes sense.

Yet interestingly, not all governors have earned higher poll numbers. In fact, some, such as Georgia Governor Brian Kemp, appear to have become less popular. Why would that be?

Before turning to possible explanations, note that most of the aforementioned surveys ask people to assess their governor’s management of the coronavirus outbreak. Views of a governor on a single (albeit major) policy issue, while important, may not be the same as overall support for the state chief executive. Furthermore, polls taken prior to the pandemic did not ask that question, making comparisons over time difficult.

To better measure the relative “rally ‘round the flag” effect for governors, I searched for surveys that asked whether people generally approved or disapproved of their governor. I found eleven, most taken between early April and early May, and then compared the results of those polls to the same governors’ average approval ratings in the last three months of 2019 (as determined by Morning Consult).

One should interpret the results with some caution, given differences in sample sizes, polling methodologies, and when the surveys were administered. Nonetheless, they suggest a broad and sizable boost in governors’ public approval. For some, the increase was quite substantial: Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, for instance, saw his approval ratings jump by a whopping 33 percentage points.

The data also reveal that two governors, Ron DeSantis of Florida and Greg Abbott of Texas, saw a drop in their ratings. Granted, the declines were small—two points for Abbott and five for DeSantis—and both had already been relatively popular, suggesting they were near their “natural” ceilings of support before the outbreak. But their poor showings do mirror other polls that gave both governors comparatively low marks in fighting the epidemic.

One common explanation for the declines is that these governors reopened their states too soon, ignoring warnings from epidemiologists (and people’s fears) that it would be premature to do so. That could explain the numbers for Abbott, but DeSantis began easing restrictions in late April, nearly two weeks after the Florida poll was taken.

A second possibility is that people have blamed DeSantis and Abbott for the spread of the coronavirus in their respective states, regardless of what steps they were (or were not) taking to protect people’s health. However, data suggest that the relative spread of the virus is not a sufficient condition for weaker public support. While their states saw an average increase in cases (Florida) or virus-related deaths (Texas) when the surveys were conducted, so too did the states of most other governors. In fact, Jon Bel Edwards of Louisiana (+12% approval) and Ralph Northam of Virginia (+24% approval) represented states that suffered from both increasing infection rates and growing COVID-19 fatalities when their surveys were taken.

I suspect that the most likely reason for these governors’ lack of support is that people perceived them as mishandling the epidemic from the get-go. Florida’s open beaches in March were widely criticized, Governor Abbott was slow to take state-wide action, and neither Texas nor Florida declared stay-at-home orders until early April, well after most states had done so. (Georgia followed a similar pattern, and Governor Kemp inexplicably expressed surprise in early April that asymptomatic carriers could spread the virus—a fact that had already been widely reported.)

By being among the last governors to apparently take the virus seriously, Abbott and DeSantis (and Kemp) garnered a great deal of negative press and risked their reputation for competence. As William Deatherage and I have written, competency is an important and distinct valence issue for political parties, and it can certainly extend to individual politicians too.

There is a partisan dimension to this. DeSantis and Abbott are Republicans, and their delay in taking the virus seriously reflected a higher degree of skepticism among members of their party towards the severity of the pandemic. But their states have sizable numbers of Democrats and Independents, and by initially appearing to take partisan approaches to a presumably non-partisan problem, they risked their own reputation among those voters.

A recent Washington Post/Ipsos survey suggests that this is indeed what happened. According to the survey, DeSantis and Abbott had far weaker support among Democrats for their handling of the virus than other Republican governors—governors like Mike DeWine of Ohio, who took an aggressive, no-nonsense and widely-acclaimed approach to the virus and received a significant bump in popularity.

Current perceptions of U.S. governors may have little long-term impact on their political fortunes. “Rally ‘round the flag” effects are notoriously short-lived, and even if DeSantis, Abbott, and Kemp have hurt their state-wide image, they are not up for reelection until 2022 and have plenty of time to improve their standing. But it does suggest that citizens have a lower regard for political leaders—especially governors—who appear overly partisan when a crisis emerges.

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