Crises are essentially leadership pop quizzes. When a crisis strikes, citizens become acutely sensitive to the performance of elected officials. While the coronavirus pandemic is somewhat unique, decades of research helps us to understand how leaders are judged when things go wrong.
Each day, citizens face new reports of death, new restrictions on their daily activity and fresh uncertainties about the future. Such reports also bear directly on our own lives in ways that disputes abroad, dips in the stock market or a candidate’s new policy proposals do not. When a crisis strikes, we stop and pay attention.
Early polling amid this coronavirus drama suggests that public concern and accountability, like so much of modern life, has been driven by partisanship. But as more citizens squarely face the consequences of this disaster, the sway of partisanship will likely wane.
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Emotion is a powerful force in politics. Studies find that leaders are held accountable for events that evoke emotional responses — even events that are well-beyond human control. My own research has found that voters punish presidents and governors for the damage and destruction caused by natural disasters. In a study of county-level election results from 1970 to 2006, election-time disaster damage is associated with decreased vote share for incumbent governors and presidents.
For some commentators, this is evidence that voters can’t be trusted to uphold their democratic obligations. It makes no sense, the thinking goes, to hold leaders accountable for damage caused by Mother Nature. But my research also shows that voters judge leaders for actions taken in the aftermath. When presidents and governors initiate the federal disaster response — by requesting or granting federal disaster declarations — the political reward outweighs the instinct for sanction.
While leaders may not cause a tornado, earthquake or pandemic, their responses provide stark opportunities for voters to evaluate character and competence. In addition to evaluating what a leader does, citizens will judge how that leader does it.
In the face of an unplanned political challenge, leaders often face the difficult decision to accept blame or pass the buck. A reporter recently asked President Donald Trump if he took responsibility for the lag in coronavirus testing. “I don’t take responsibility at all,” Trump responded, while blaming “a set of circumstances” that his administration was given.
Trump was following a basic tenet of electoral politics: Avoid blame for unpopular policies or poor performance. But when it comes to public opinion and crisis management, things are not so simple. Citizens make judgments of character along with decisions about blame. While partisanship is still influential, in a crisis, individuals are more willing to update even their most entrenched impressions.
In the aftermath of the 2014 Flint, Michigan, water crisis, we studied how accepting or deflecting responsibility shaped public views of Rick Snyder, Michigan’s governor at the time. After describing how the drinking supply of Flint was contaminated with lead, we either highlighted that Snyder had accepted blame for the crisis or noted that the director of the state agency responsible for water quality was primarily at fault.
When respondents learned that Snyder had taken personal responsibility, his approval rating was 20 points higher compared to the scenario where blame was shifted to the state director. In other studies involving a hypothetical flood, heatwave or bridge collapse, we found similar results.
This increased approval is most likely a result of elevated views of the elected official’s character, honesty and trustworthiness. Voters, it appears, are not automatons allocating blame. Instead, they are quite capable of nuanced judgment.
In a matter of days, the coronavirus has transformed American life. Americans who once cheered or jeered the Trump White House or the candidates for the Democratic primaries now look at politics and to politicians with fresh eyes. When disaster strikes, citizens are fearful, and some will blame elected officials for things beyond their control.
But the lens of accountability is also sharpened. Partisanship will not protect our families or our livelihoods.
Andrew Reeves is an associate professor of political science at Washington University and a research fellow at the Weidenbaum Center on the Economy, Government and Public Policy. He studies elections, public opinion and executive politics.