After weeks of anxiously watching the spread of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 throughout China, March was the month European leaders were finally forced to confront the reality of this intensely contagious disease. On 1 March, Europe’s five largest countries—Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Italy and Spain—registered a combined 1,500 cases; by 29 March this had risen to over 300,000. As COVID-19 was formally designated a global pandemic, the World Health Organisation on 13 March described Europe as the pandemic’s “epicentre”.
In response, European governments have instituted a breathtaking array of stringent measures aimed at controlling the virus and limiting its spread. While European countries have differed in their sequencing, most have reached a similar endpoint: societies locked down; schools, businesses and non-essential services closed; and residents urged—in many cases forced—to remain at home. For most Europeans, this marks the most extensive state intervention in citizens’ lives since the Second World War.
Recent polls at this still early stage of the outbreak indicate widespread public approval for these measures. A recent poll in the United Kingdom recorded 92% support for the measures, while Italians—in the heart of the continent’s outbreak—have registered between 76% and 90% support for them in polls. However, European electorates have not only indicated approval for the emergency measures taken by their governments, polls have also identified increased support for the governments themselves.
Over the last month, European leaders across the continent have enjoyed significant surges in their approval ratings. Not long after contesting an election in which his net approval remained in the negative digits, 72% of British voters are now satisfied with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s (CON-ECR) performance in office. The French President Emmanuel Macron (LREM-RE) has recorded his highest ratings in almost two years, and the German Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU-EPP) has climbed to 79% approval. Even Italy’s Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte (Ind-*), has reached 71% approval, the highest for any Italian Prime Minister in ten years.
This trend of upward support for governments and leaders is also present in recent voting intention polls. Two recent polls in the UK (Number Cruncher & Opinium) placed the Conservative Party (ECR) on 54% which, if replicated in an election, would produce the party’s best election result since 1931. On the other side of the Irish Sea, an opinion poll conducted by Red C indicates a remarkable recovery for Ireland’s Fine Gael (EPP) after falling to the third place in February’s election. In Germany, two Forsa polls indicate that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union/Christian Social Union alliance (EPP) has surged to 36%, their highest poll result since the 2017 election, while a Pitagórica poll in Portugal found the governing Socialist Party (S&D) on 42%, an increase of 6 percentage points from last year’s election.
Polling average of Germany
Further east, the Polish President Andrzej Duda (*-ECR) has improved his already strong polling to be in reach of a majority in the first round in the upcoming presidential election scheduled for May, a result only achieved once before during the Third Polish Republic. The surge in approval ratings is not an exclusively European phenomenon either—the United States President Donald Trump (Republican-national conservative) is polling higher now than at any previous point during his presidency. There are examples of leaders and governments who have yet to receive a polling surge or the results are more ambiguous, such as Spain and Greece—where New Democracy’s (EPP) honeymoon period may be denting the potential for gains—but in general we are witnessing a trend taking place with an astonishing consistency.
These surges of approval and support have been widely attributed to the “rally round the flag effect”, a concept used to describe the phenomenon of sudden increased support for leaders during times of crisis, largely developed in the context of wartime approval in the United States. The pandemic appears to bear many common hallmarks of the “rally” phenomenon. By making public addresses to their nations, leaders benefit from an unusually high degree of receptivity and engagement from their citizens—for instance, Boris Johnson’s recent announcement of a lockdown in the United Kingdom was the most watched broadcast for over a decade on the isles, reaching more than 27 million Britons.
Like in wartime, most opposition parties have effectively suspended their opposition to government policy as they seek to avoid perceptions of politicising the crisis, critiquing only specific aspects of responses to the pandemic rather than the broader substance. Combined with a saturated national focus on the government’s response, leaders gain an unparalleled opportunity to monopolise media coverage and portray themselves as strong and competent in the face of a crisis, enjoying non-partisan support from across the political spectrum. In such a context, it is not surprising that leaders and governments might experience sudden surges in their approval ratings and polling numbers.
The long-term future trajectory of the polling figures above is more difficult to estimate at this stage. Support for former United States President George W. Bush (Republican-national conservative, 2001-2009) following the 9/11 terror attacks provides perhaps an archetypal example of the course of public opinion following a “rally event.” Surging by 39 points to a 90% approval after 9/11, by the time of his re-election contest in 2004—after another smaller surge sparked by the invasion of Iraq—Bush’s approval ratings had largely fallen back to their pre-“rally” levels. Former French President François Hollande (SP-S&D, 2012-2017) experienced the same kind of volatility. His approval ratings doubled twice in 2015 after multiple terror attacks in Paris, yet collapsed to a mere 4% the subsequent year. In normal circumstances, then, we would expect the current rallies around leaders and governments to be rather short-lived.
We don’t know yet whether COVID-19, the most severe and widespread pandemic to hit the planet since modern polling began, will follow the same trend—political scientists will no doubt continue to research this for years to come. In a Western context, the pandemic will have a significantly greater impact on citizens’ day-to-day lives than any terror attack or foreign war, and the local death toll looks tragically set to be many orders of magnitude larger. Once this crisis has ended—and it will end—governments will likely be held to account for their performance by electorates and the media, as other countries provide numerous alternative examples for more or less successful responses to the outbreak. Perhaps the greater personal impact of this crisis will lead citizens to turn against governments perceived to have failed them—or to reward those seen to have protected them from the worst of the disease. The impact and consequences of the virus will likely be even more difficult to control than wars or terror attacks, especially when considering the severe economic crisis which will surely follow.
Political outcomes may depend greatly on how exactly this crisis is resolved, which remains an open question for every country. As several countries have postponed their elections, incumbent governments may see limited electoral benefits from this crisis—indeed, it feels churlish to consider this too deeply in the midst of a crisis. European governments and leaders are being tested in a way no counterparts of their generation have previously experienced. The public appears to be rallying to their support at the present, but none of us can know where things will stand in the coming months and years.