Democratic leaders win surge of approval during Covid-19 crisis

Political scientists warn ‘rally round flag’ effect won’t last and populist parties will bounce back

The approval ratings of democratic leaders around the world have soared during the coronavirus crisis, but political scientists say it will not last – and warn that populist opposition parties, in particular, will bounce back strongly as it subsides.

Will Jennings, a professor of political science at Southampton University, said the increases were due to an effect first identified in 1970 by a US political scientist, John Mueller, in a paper examining the popularity of US presidents in times of crisis.

“In the context of the cold war, Mueller looked at presidential approval data dating back to the 1940s. He observed that it spiked significantly at major moments of tension like, say, the Cuban missile crisis,” Jennings said.

“He defined this ‘rally round the flag’ effect as coming from an international event that directly involved the president, and was ‘dramatic, specific and sharply focused’. That pretty much perfectly describes the coronavirus crisis.”

Some leaders have seen spectacular rises. The popularity of Giuseppe Conte, the law professor who became Italy’s prime minister in 2018, has surged to 71%, even as his country recorded the highest number of coronavirus deaths in the world.