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Op-Ed:  COVID-19 has been such a disaster even red state residents aren’t happy with Republicans

In a recent survey, only 18% of Floridians were happy with how Gov. Ron DeSantis' government has managed the pandemic.
In a recent survey, only 18% of Floridians were happy with how Gov. Ron DeSantis’ government has managed the COVID-19 pandemic.

(Joe Burbank / Associated Press)

With the COVID-19 outbreak spreading to virtually every corner of the nation, both Donald Trump and his supporters in state legislatures and governor’s mansions should be worried with election day looming around the corner.

In response to the pandemic, the federal government has essentially delegated responsibility to states and municipalities because it’s easier to hand off the job, with the assumption that people would be happy with their states handling the crisis. The numbers show quite the opposite.

New data from the AEI COVID-19 and American Life Survey, conducted in June even before the current spike in cases, reveals that Americans across the board are not happy with the Trump administration’s performance during this crisis.

The level of dissatisfaction in red states that went for President Trump in 2016 is ominous for Republicans. Only about 11% of red state residents believe that the federal government is managing the crisis very well, compared with 8% of blue state residents. The difference in approval between individual states is not big either; California, for instance, shows a 10% approval for the Trump administration and most states fall within the same range, give or take a few points. In other words, the frustration didn’t break down along traditional political lines.

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Many leaders in red states have taken a cue from Trump to discount the severity of COVID-19 and limit interventions to reduce virus’ spread such as mask wearing mandates and business shutdowns. Their constituents, however, rate them harshly. In fact, people surveyed in conservative states were often more displeased with their state leaders than people in more liberal states. Nearly 60% in both red and blue states support steps to ensure the public is safe even if that means keeping businesses closed.

Nationally, residents of both blue and red states are also largely unhappy with how their state governments are managing the outbreak. Only 25% of Americans believe that their state governments are handling the pandemic very well. Residents in blue states, which have tended to be more aggressive in shutting down business and imposing public health orders, gave their state governments higher approval (29%) compared with people in red states (21%). For California, a traditionally blue-leaning state, the figure is 25%.

The survey also found that state governments that most resisted closure measures — presumably because they are following the lead of the White House — have even lower approval ratings than red states generally.

In Florida, for instance, only 18% of people believe that the state government under Gov. Ron DeSantis, a close Trump ally, has been handling the situation with COVID-19 very well; that number is 17% for Georgia’s state government led by Gov. Brian Kemp. Approval rates are significantly higher in blue states with stricter coronavirus controls, including Michigan at 29% under Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who has been consistently attacked by Trump. In New York, 37% support the Andrew Cuomo administration’s coronavirus response in New York, even though many generally disliked Cuomo prior to the pandemic.

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These numbers show a real disconnect between red state leadership and their conservative-leaning residents. Americans, regardless of whether they are living in red or blue states, are of the same mind about the impact of COVID-19.

For example, around 50% of both red and blue state residents think that the worst is yet to come. More than 60% of people in both conservative and liberal states worried about someone in their own household contracting the coronavirus. About 36% of red staters have seen their incomes decrease, as have 32% of people in blue states. About 18% in both kinds of states report that half or more of their close friends and family have lost their jobs due to the pandemic.

It’s not surprising that there’s so little public confidence in how any level of government has handled the pandemic. The failures are obvious in the daily case and death counts: This country now has 4.7 million coronavirus cases and deaths are approaching 160,000, possibly reaching 300,000 by the end of the year. In this national disaster, it’s notable that people in red states are even less satisfied with their leaders.

With the November elections less than 100 days away, the question is whether state Republican officials will realize that the choices they’ve made in managing this pandemic are out of step with the outlook of their constituents. This misalignment could be extremely hard to overcome for Trump and Republican candidates for offices further down the ballot.

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Samuel J. Abrams is professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a visiting scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.


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