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2 October 2020updated 04 Sep 2021 12:36pm

What happens to public opinion when a world leader gets Covid-19?

Polling on Boris Johnson in the UK and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil shows that public opinion shifts toward neutrality, but not endearment.

By Ben Walker

US president Donald Trump has tested positive for coronavirus. The 74-year-old incumbent, set to face the majority of American voters just over four weeks from now, is self-isolating with his wife, Melania, after announcing the news on Twitter in the early hours of Friday morning (2 October).

Trump joins a growing list of world leaders who have tested positive for Covid. Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro tested positive in July, but appeared after a few weeks to emerge seemingly unscathed from the diagnosis. The UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, on the other hand, tested positive in March, and his condition worsened to the point of needing support in an intensive care unit. He was discharged after a week in hospital. Bolivia’s interim president Jeanine Anes and Guatemala’s president Alejandro Giammattei have also had the virus.

With a US general election only a month away, and early voting already taking place in some states, the question arises: will Trump’s diagnosis prove significant? Does an encounter with the virus shape the polls?

The evidence in other countries paints a limited picture. In the UK, Boris Johnson announced that he had tested positive on 27 March, and left hospital on 12 April. In the immediate aftermath of his recovery, Johnson’s personal popularity had a small increase. Approval for the Prime Minister was already high in the period after he imposed a national lockdown on 23 March. The number of Britons favourable towards the Prime Minister jumped from 54 per cent at the end of March to 60 per cent following his return to work.

That rise, however, was not sustained for longer than a few weeks. When it came to voting intentions, the Conservative Party already had a large lead, and was likely at its electoral ceiling. The Prime Minister having Covid, and his move to intensive care, did not impact voting intentions in any meaningful way. At best, he experienced a small improvement in personal popularity but, again, it was short-lived.

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Testing positive: no bounce for Boris Johnson
Weighted tracker of UK public opinion towards Prime Minister

Data: Britain Elects poll tracker

Since then, Johnson’s approval rating has continued to dip, but this probably has little to do with his Covid-19 diagnosis and is more likely a reflection of how his government has handled the virus.

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In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro was resistant to social distancing, at one point defying public opinion by engaging with crowds at a pro-government rally. His popularity at the time waned, with public approval in one poll collapsing from 48 per cent in January to 39 per cent in May. 

When Bolsonaro announced that he had tested positive for Covid in July, however, public opinion made a small but certain shift in his direction. A DataPoder360 survey found the number rating his presidency as “bad” or “terrible” had fallen from 47 per cent a month prior to 43 per cent in the immediate aftermath of the Covid news; the number of Brazilians who were neutral rose by 3 percentage points, from 20 per cent to 23 per cent.

Testing positive: Bolsonaro experienced a small bump
Public opinion polling from Poder360

What we saw in Brazil was a slight detoxification in public perceptions of a divisive and incompetent leader – but, as with Johnson, it was not sustainable, and was a shift more towards neutrality of opinion than endearment.

What might this mean for the US? In March through to April, when Covid took hold of New York and spread to the rest of America, Trump recorded a small but unsustained improvement in public opinion. His favourability, according to the FiveThirtyEight tracker, increased from 43 per cent mid-March to 46 per cent at the start of April – the highest rating he has had since the start of his presidency. 

By the end of April, however, that three-point increase had all but disappeared, and on voting intentions in a match-up against Joe Biden, Trump saw no significant bounce.

We can tentatively infer some willingness among Americans to get behind the president in a time of national crisis. But it may be that Trump destroyed this sentiment through displays of incompetence that have been seen and noted by the American public.

Americans are not in the same mindset as Brazilian and British voters. Brits and Brazilians weren’t, for example, reeling from a disastrous televised presidential debate, or already thinking how to vote in a few weeks’ time. Trump’s diagnosis may be a factor in polling to come, but it won’t be the only factor, and it is hard to disaggregate from other issues. In the end we may see a softening in strong public dislike for the president, where voters move from being “strongly opposed” to simply “opposed”. The likelihood of a shift further – to genuinely positive feelings – is small in a country now defined by its polarised political landscape.

As such, the political impact of Trump’s diagnosis is likely to be low. The best Trump could hope for would be a softening in voter enthusiasm among Biden’s base. This would be something, since much of the Democrat candidate’s vote is anti-Trump rather than pro-Biden. But it is hard to see how that translates into enough of a change to swing an election.