Leaders enjoy a bounce in the polls during a crisis but beware, it’s not a summit

This article was originally published in the Toronto Star on May 10, 2020.

Fingers crossed, as the peak of the pandemic fades into Ontario’s rear-view, Queen’s Park has begun to turn its attention to the perhaps even more challenging task of reopening the economy. The province, along with governments the world over, has laid out a framework to guide the crucial next phases of recovery and taken the first cautious steps on the way.

For most leaders, this pivot comes at a time of personal political strength. Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia has earned a 25 per cent bounce in his approval rating; U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is up 18 points; Angela Merkel up by 14. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has gained somewhere between seven and 16 per cent, depending on the poll.

Provincial leaders have also fared very well. While Quebec Premier François Legault now enjoys near-Stalinist levels of popular support at 96 per cent, Ontario Premier Doug Ford is not far behind at 83 per cent.

For Premier Ford, there are, I think, two factors at play: the first is that politics is a game of expectations, and he is exceeding old expectations of both his capability and his performance like a golden buzzer contestant on “America’s Got Talent.” Countless times I have heard committed opponents of Ford acknowledge that he is delivering an authentic and highly competent response to this crisis.

The second is that in every crisis, regardless of the quality of the response, leaders benefit from an effect that political scientists call “rallying around the flag,” which occurs during a crisis when voters are reluctant to criticize their government and instead give them the benefit of the doubt.

The common error leaders benefitting from this effect make is to mistake the temporary sugar high of support during the event for enduring support after the event. It’s a mistake because the evidence suggests they are judged by how they come out of the crisis and not by how they managed in the thick of it. In short, it’s a bounce, not a summit.

Just ask former premier Ernie Eves. After enjoying a significant boost in his approval ratings for managing through the SARS crisis and the 2003 blackout, Eves called an October election that year. He entered into the race with a commanding double-digit lead, which evaporated by election day, resulting in Dalton McGuinty’s Liberals sweeping into power (Disclosure: I was co-chair of the Eves campaign.)

This pattern repeats itself again and again. During the Iran hostage crisis, President Jimmy Carter saw his approval rating jump 26 per cent. But in bungling the long-term handling of the crisis, Carter ended up losing the 1980 presidential election to Ronald Reagan.

In June 2017, U.K. PM Theresa May, holding a 21-point lead and seeking to capitalize on her party’s grip on the Brexit file, confidently called a snap election. The result? She blew her majority and was returned to power with a weakened minority propped up by the fringe DUP. May’s miscalculation and the ensuing debacle prolonged the Brexit crisis.

Already, there are rumours in Ottawa about Liberals considering a fall election. But in addition to the logistical and practical nightmare of campaigning in the midst of a pandemic, the party should read history.

It is far too soon to declare Mission Accomplished when it comes to COVID-19. After all, a long road to recovery — in both public health and economic terms — remains ahead.

But political performance to date has not been for naught. In Ford’s case, his persona and presence are reinforcing the covenant he made with his voters when they elected him in the first place. He has also won a second chance with many other voters who had written off his government but now see the same qualities of leadership that his supporters have long endorsed. By focusing resolutely on the recovery still to come — in both substantive policy and communications terms — the premier stands to build on this strong foundation.

For both Trudeau and Ford, the political challenge will be to continue to remind voters of what they liked about what they saw during the crisis, as the hard, gruelling, unrelenting work of recovery continues.