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Rally Around the Flag: How Crises Like COVID-19 Affect Leader Popularity

For politicians across Canada, the COVID-19 pandemic is having an interesting effect: their approval ratings are up, often regardless of previous criticism. In an article from two weeks ago, Nouvelle highlighted that the Liberal federal government was enjoying a “‘COVID-time’ approval bump”. 

In short: We delve deeper into this interesting phenomenon to discover that this is not by accident. Moments of crisis are often embraced by political leaders as they tend to create high public support for elected governments – if they are up to the challenge.

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Historical angle: This effect of crisis support bumps has been noted in many historical case studies as CBC polls analyst Éric Grenier laid out in a recent article:

  • From UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s leadership during the Second World War, 
  • To Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s handling of the FLQ crisis in Quebec.
  • While George W. Bush’s approval peaked at a historical high of 92% following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York.

Some leaders have even created crises to distract their population from domestic issues. 

  • In 1830, French King Charles X invaded Algeria, among other reasons, to build support for his rule back in Paris. 
  • US President Donald Trump’s recent assassination of top Iranian general Qasem Soleimani can also be described similarly. 
  • The concept even inspired an American satirical film, Wag the Dog, in 1997. 

This rise in support for political leaders is not guaranteed to last after the end of the crisis. This becomes more likely if the leader performs badly on a related issue.

The Ford Experiment: An interesting case in Canada will be how public support changes for Ontario Premier Doug Ford, who has enjoyed a substantial approval bump, following the COVID-19 outbreaks in long-term care homes.

  • While long term care has often been neglected, alarm bells were ringing last year about Ford’s decision to cut funding to the province’s long-term care facilities. 
  • By April 2020, it was already too late, with Ford admitting there was a “wildfire” raging in these care homes. Canada wide, more than 86% of COVID-19 deaths had come from long-term care homes.
  • This past week, the Canadian Armed Forces came out with a “scathing” report, highlighting what it saw in facilities in which it intervened. 

Following the report’s release, Premier Ford promised accountability in an emotional press conference. What remains to be seen is how support for his leadership and his party will fare once the brunt of the pandemic is passed. 

  • Emotional press conferences do not always lead to actual changes in policy action as was seen by Ford himself during 2018 floods in the Ottawa River.

The outcome largely depends on the public’s collective memory and how likely institutions like the media are to remind its viewers of it. If recent backlash is any indicator, Ford and other wary political leaders’ prospects are not encouraging.

  • An interesting angle is that while Ford enjoys record approval numbers, a recent Abacus poll found that Ontario public voting intentions had the provincial Liberals ahead by two points.  

The bottom line: Times of crisis provide an opportunity for leaders to show compassion and empathy for the people they represent often leading to bumps in their approval ratings. Yet, there is often blatant opportunism by leaders who understand the history of ‘rally around the flag’ moments. 

In Canada and specifically in Ontario, it will be interesting to follow media scrutiny around the COVID-19 related crisis in long term care and the impact of funding cuts to see whether the historical approval numbers for Doug Ford return to a pre-COVID level.

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