Rally ’Round the Flag, But Not Around Cuomo

An apolitical friend reached out to me the other day with an honest question: Is Andrew Cuomo the best governor in the United States?

The answer to that question is a hard “no,” but my friend is not the only one thinking that way, especially among New Yorkers.

A new poll, under the headline “Cuomo Threatens Trump” shows Cuomo’s numbers skyrocketing during his handling of the coronavirus crisis and has him challenging Trump seriously in a head-to-head matchup. Polls show the president’s approval ratings moving upward during the crisis, too. Both of these politicians seem to be leveraging their nationally televised Corona briefings toward general approval of their handling of the situation.

The truth is both of these politicians seem to be benefiting from the “rally ’round the flag effect.” Seen most spectacularly during 9/11, the “rally ’round the flag effect” is a term coined by political scientists to describe how Americans tend to favor their leaders during times of national distress. During “the most spectacular of international crises,” government officials can expect “a public rally.” This is how we can understand President George Bush’s astounding approval rating of 90 percent during the intial outbreak of “the war on terrorism.” Or FDR’s 84 percent approval rating during the Great Depression, even though some economists have questioned if his actions actually prolonged our economic burdens, and didn’t help alleviate them.

It isn’t too difficult to see why Cuomo seems to be benefiting from the flag effect more than Trump is. While Cuomo has been getting the benefits of the televised briefings, his critiques and criticisms have come mostly from the local press. The national press, on the other hand, has been fawning over him. And thus there has been little mitigation to the theory’s effect.

Trump, while also effectively utilizing his press briefings, has been dealing with adversarial media coverage that has been trying to squash the president’s improving poll numbers. Most national outlets, apparently frustrated with Trump benefiting himself through increased government transparency, have stopped showing the press conferences in their entirety. A rather staggering politically motivated decision given it is the only way people can get unfiltered coverage of the pandemic they find themselves in.

Additionally, President Trump faces attacks from political adversaries, mainly Joe Biden, who he is expected to face in an election this year. Cuomo has no such nitpickers because he is not up for reelection. In fact, the New York State Republican Party has coalesced behind Cuomo in a show of unity during the crisis. So again, it is not all that surprising that Cuomo is profiting from the flag effect more than Trump is. For every few points Trump gains, he loses a little at the behest of his detractors. Every point Cuomo gains is his own to lose.

Parenthetically, if Cuomo did decide to hijack the Democratic nomination from Joe Biden, President Trump would be quick to highlight Cuomo’s weaknesses. Nobody has a knack for doing this quite like the president does, especially since the president has had a front-row seat to much of the governor’s career. Suddenly, I’d imagine, the Cuomo polling surge would slow.

Lastly, Cuomo is both politically and geographically adjacent to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who can make anyone appear politically competent in comparison.

Something well worth remembering is that the coronavirus will pass, while our leaders will remain in office. And so it would be a mistake to elect leaders based on their handling of this crisis alone. Especially since social science indicates we are more likely, for emotional reasons, to appreciate our leaders during times like these. Crises do hurt, but they are temporary.

Instead, we should remember that once this is all said and done we are getting the same politicians and the same policies that we saw before the novel coronavirus stopped the world in its tracks.

So how did I answer my friend who asked me about Cuomo and his excellence? I answered that from a purely political standpoint, COVID-19 couldn’t have come at a better time for the Governor of New York.

Prior to this crisis, Cuomo was in the news for signing one of the worst criminal justice reform bills the state has ever seen. New York politicians “broke New York’s criminal-justice system,” and the negative effects were felt immediately. Even Democrats had seen the folly and the danger of the bill. This is in great contrast to President Trump’s criminal justice reform, which has received bipartisan praise.

Cuomo’s poll numbers, now ameliorated by the crisis, were not very strong as the cost of living in highly regulated New York continued to rise. In contrast, Trump was presiding over one of the strongest economies in U.S. history.

New York generally does not keep its governors for more than three terms. George Pataki and Mario Cuomo both left office after their third term. Despite Andrew Cuomo’s performance during the pandemic, New Yorkers would be wise to continue that trend.

The United States seems to like to keep its presidents for two terms. Since 1980, only one of our presidents was unable to secure a second term.

New Yorkers and Americans alike would be wise to maintain these two trends by keeping Trump and booting Cuomo during their respective elections. If we do, when this coronavirus crisis is but a painful memory—and that day will come—we will benefit from policies and politicians who work for us day-to-day, and not only when we are rallying around them.

About Elliot Fuchs

Elliot Fuchs is a New York-based political consultant and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Elliot_Fuchs.

Photo: Matthew Cavanaugh/Getty Images

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