October 29, 2020
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Leaders in several countries—India, China, the U.S. and Brazil to name a few—have witnessed some level of public outrage towards the mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic. But how will their political ratings be affected as a result?

Jenson Lau, a current PhD student in the Fox School’s Department of Human Resource Management, posed this question at the start of the pandemic. Over the course of the spring, Lau and his co-authors conducted a study to examine how COVID-19 impacts political support for global leaders. 

“We wanted to see if we can find a way to link the current global crisis to increases in approval ratings like we saw for President Bush during 9/11,” Lau says.

The “rally ‘round the flag” theory, often used in political science and international relations, aims to explain the show of support that political leaders receive during periods of international crisis. It helps understand why U.S. presidents’ approval ratings increased during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Iran Hostage Crisis, Gulf War and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.  

Over the course of two months, Lau and his co-authors collected and analyzed data around daily political ratings for leaders in eleven countries to show whether citizens actually “rally ‘round the flag” when an international crisis occurs. They deliberately used daily datasets, instead of weekly or monthly, because they wanted to capture the swift changes that come with COVID-19.

Their results show that increases in new daily COVID-19 cases correlate positively with increases in political ratings on the same day. 

“Whenever a country sees rises in its COVID-19 cases, its people increase their approval of their leader. They regard a rise in cases as a national crisis and thus immediately seek a leader to deal with it,” says Lau. 

According to Lau, people believe that trusting their current leaders reduces uncertainty and minimizes national threats. Specifically, the research team found that the effect of daily COVID-19 cases on approval ratings was strongest in Canada, U.S. and the United Kingdom and was weakest in Brazil, Japan and Mexico. 

A possible explanation the researchers gave for this variation is that the countries with weaker results have a mindset in which they expect their leader to deal with the pandemic. On the other hand, the countries with stronger results think that their leaders are going above and beyond their duties when they address the pandemic. Therefore, the countries with stronger results felt more indebted to their leader when the pandemic was addressed leading to higher approval ratings.

Interestingly, the relationship between approval ratings and COVID-19 cases holds true regardless of how the leader has been handling the crisis or how the leader was performing before the crisis, Lau and his co-authors discovered. 

The researchers relayed their findings in “The Rise of COVID-19 Cases is Associated with Support for World Leaders,” published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this summer. Previous research on the “rally ‘round the flag” theory only focused on its effect within one country. However, by looking at this theory across several countries, the researchers were able to show that in general, people all over the world tend to support their current political leaders when a crisis occurs. 

Lau acknowledges the contributions and the support he received from his co-authors Christopher Barnes, Joshua Jackson and Sam Yam.

These findings can also have implications for elections. Since citizens seem to rally ‘round the flag during a crisis, despite how the incumbent is performing, COVID-19 and its aftermath might be advantageous in gaining support for the incumbents currently in office.

BrazilCOVID-19Global LeadersJapanJensen LauMexicoPhD StudentPolitical LeadershipPolitical Ratings