What happened to the ‘rally around the flag’ effect

Movement in Trump approval and ballot numbers amid crisis is small compared to past examples

A new COVID-19  testing site, operated by the Maryland National Guard, is set up in the parking lot outside of FedEx Field on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The site will be open three days a week. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
A new COVID-19 testing site, operated by the Maryland National Guard, is set up in the parking lot outside of FedEx Field on Tuesday, March 31, 2020. The site will be open three days a week. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted April 1, 2020 at 11:09am

ANALYSIS — With the Democratic presidential contest suspended, President Donald Trump appearing daily at briefings and former Vice President Joe Biden largely invisible, it wouldn’t be surprising if the president’s job approval numbers ticked up. That’s exactly what usually happens when the “rally around the flag” effect kicks in.

In times of crisis, Americans rally behind the president, who invariably stands as a symbol of national pride and unity. They place country above party, even putting aside their ideological differences. That’s what happened after September 11, during the Persian Gulf War in 1991 and during the Cuban Missile Crisis of late 1962.

The result in each of those cases was a spike in the president’s job performance numbers, invariably by more than 10 points, often by 20 or 30 points or more.

Since presidential job performance is positively correlated to the president’s performance in elections, the improved job numbers should translate into better hypothetical ballot test numbers, as well.

The president has been on television every day for weeks, talking about national unity, the war on the coronavirus and steps to protect all Americans. He has surrounded himself with military leaders, cabinet secretaries and medical authorities who have credibility with a broad swath of the American public.

And yet, the evidence is overwhelming that the coronavirus crisis, combined with Trump’s increased visibility and call for unity, has produced little or no “rally around the flag” effect.

The March 22-25 Fox News poll showed Trump’s job approval creeping up from 45 percent in late January to 47 percent in late February and 48 percent in March. That slight improvement in nowhere near what previous “rally around the flag” effects have been.

NBC News/Wall Street Journal polling, on the other hand, has shown no effect at all. Trump’s job approval was 46 percent in January, 47 percent one month later and 46 percent again on March 11-13.

The Washington Post/ABC News poll showed Trump’s approval at 47 percent in late January, 46 percent in mid-February and 49 percent in late March (March 22-25).

Trump’s ballot test numbers also don’t reflect a “rally around the flag” effect.

The mid-January Fox News poll showed Biden leading Trump by nine points (50 percent to 41 percent), while the late February poll had the margin at eight points (49 percent to 41 percent). The March 22-25 Fox News poll had Biden’s margin holding at nine points (49 percent to 40 percent).

The late January NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had Biden leading Trump by six points (50 percent to 44 percent), while a mid-February survey found the margin at eight. The mid-March NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Biden leading by nine points.

Only the Washington Post/ABC News survey found some movement to Trump, and it was limited. The late January poll showed Biden leaning by four points (50 percent to 46 percent). Not quite a month later, the February 14-17 Washington Post/ABC News found Biden’s margin up to seven points (52 percent to 45 percent). But in the March 22-25 Washington Post/ABC News survey, Biden’s lead was only two points (49 percent to 47 percent).

Of course, the difference between the January and March polls was miniscule. Biden was down one point, and Trump was up one point — hardly different enough to justify even the raising of an eyebrow.

To be sure, the lack of a “rally around the flag” effect isn’t all that surprising, given the past 3 ½ years.

Trump is an extremely polarizing public figure, and his misstatements and attacks on other political figures and the media have undermined his somewhat erratic calls for bipartisanship and national unity.

People have come to either love or hate Trump, and each one of us already has a lens through which we view the president’s behavior, including his presentations at daily briefings when he brags about how “outstanding” his performance combatting the pandemic has been.

Does this mean that Trump isn’t likely to get a bounce from the crisis? Nothing is guaranteed now.

The president may end up better off than he began, given the suspension of the Democratic nominating contest and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’s refusal to acknowledge that the fight for the nomination is already over.

Trump was already in a serious hole because of his own behavior and the Democrats’ decision to nominate Biden, who has broader political appeal than some of his party’s contenders.

The coronavirus pandemic scrambles a race that already strongly advantaged Biden. Anything that scrambles the race has the potential to benefit the underdog.

On the other hand, massive unemployment, combined with the inevitable assessment of Trump’s early missteps dealing with the crisis, could cause additional leakage from Trump’s base, something the president certainly cannot afford.

So the coronavirus crisis remains a huge question mark politically.

The one thing that is obvious right now is that the president has not benefitted from the “rally around the flag” effect the way other presidents did, or any current officeholder should.

And for that, Donald J. Trump has nobody to blame but himself.

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