Governors' Long Honeymoon of COVID Approval Ratings Is Coming to an End

U.S. governors of either party who acted decisively against the threat of COVID-19 generally enjoyed healthier approval ratings than those whose reaction to the pandemic was softer or belated, a Newsweek analysis has found.

But those polling bounces from handling the virus have been eroded over the course of the pandemic, and many governors have seen a substantial drop from their approval rating peaks last spring.

The pandemic gave America's governors a unique opportunity to show leadership in a time of national crisis. While some focused on public health, taking drastic action such as shuttering businesses and imposing stay-at-home orders, others put emphasis on maintaining personal liberty.

With the pandemic claiming more than 500,000 American lives so far, the results for their political fortunes, just like their COVID plans, have been mixed. But, broadly, voter approval was more buoyant for those who took a stricter line on public health. That is changing over time.

Though polling on governor approval ratings has been sporadic in several states, publicly-available data points to a pattern: Governors won good marks early on in the pandemic, in some cases reaching new heights of popularity.

But the approval rating honeymoon is now over. Most governors had approval over 50 percent in the summer of 2020, some even rising as high as 55 or even 60 percent.

With notable exceptions, those figures declined into the fall and winter; as the pandemic wore on, fewer voters expressed happiness with their governors' approach.

However, these falls may not be politically significant, particularly where gubernatorial elections are heavily weighted in favor of one party.

While most Democrats have benefited politically—with some unpopular incumbents gaining unexpected ground—the effect had started to peter out by the end of 2020.

Republican governors in blue states seem to be the biggest winners, securing high levels of support and maintaining them better than Democrats.

There are 48 serving governors who were in office when the pandemic began. Of those, 25 have seen their approval ratings rise or been reelected during the crisis, while 13 have experienced declines. For the remaining 10, the picture is more complex.

Some governors who were already unpopular, such as Oklahoma's Kevin Stitt, a Republican, and Hawaii's David Ige, a Democrat, failed to alter their standing.

Others in the same position—notably Rhode Island's Gina Raimondo, a Democrat—saw substantial improvements.

And a handful has defied the general trend, with Florida's Ron DeSantis, a Republican, and Illinois' JB Pritzker, a Democrat, standing out as leaders whose approval has ebbed and flowed throughout the pandemic.

Eighteen governors either took a relatively relaxed approach to the virus, initially resisted implementing public health measures introduced by other states, or moved quickly to lift restrictions. Some did decide to impose tight restrictions, others did not.

Of these governors, 13 have seen their approval ratings fall or remain poor, while one was reelected last year.

The remaining 30 governors adopted moderate to strict restrictions, often including stay-at-home orders, mask mandates, and widespread business closures. This group of governors was generally more willing to impose stringent public health measures and to do so sooner.

Nineteen either improved their approval rating or saw little change and three were reelected.

It is worth noting that COVID-19 restrictions have changed over time as governors have altered course, sometimes introducing new restrictions they previously opposed, sometimes bowing to pressure to reopen businesses.

The governors of the four most populous states—California, New York, Texas, and Florida—have seen falls in their approval ratings over the past year, but Abbott stands out.

A University of Houston Hobby School of Public Affairs poll published on February 5 showed Abbott with just 39 percent approval. This is a significant decline from the 48 percent he enjoyed in February 2020.

His approval peaked in April last year at 56 percent but began to decline into the fall, according to figures from the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. Abbott is up for reelection in 2022.

By contrast, California's Gavin Newsom, New York's Andrew Cuomo, and Florida's Ron DeSantis have suffered only modest declines in support when compared to last year.

Newsom, facing a potential recall election, enjoys 51 percent approval, according to a Morning Consult poll released on February 4. This is higher than Newsom's approval rating at any time before COVID-19 struck but it's a 16-point drop from his mid-pandemic high in May.

Cuomo's approval has experienced a similar effect. A Morning Consult poll published on February 22 gave the three-term governor an approval rating of 57 percent. This is down from his high of 63 percent in January and earlier in February, but still higher than his pre-pandemic numbers. He was polling at just 47 percent at the end of 2019.

However, Cuomo is now engulfed in scandals relating to the reporting of nursing home deaths in New York and sexual harassment allegations, which may begin dragging his approval down further and faster as more recent polling emerges.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a press conference before the opening of a mass COVID-19 vaccination site in the Queens borough of New York, on February 24, 2021. SETH WENIG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

In Florida, DeSantis, who was once considered one of the country's most popular governors, saw a severe decline in approval during the pandemic, but he's recently recovered, recording 54 percent in a Florida Chamber of Commerce of poll published on January 29. This is up from a low of 43 percent in a Florida Atlantic University poll in September.

Unlike Cuomo and Newsom, DeSantis pushed hard for reopening the economy in Florida and faced criticism for the decision. But the Republican doesn't appear to have suffered any long-term political damage from the approach.

The experience of these four states speaks to the wider trend all across the country: The pandemic has impacted governors differently and approval ratings have been affected by how they approached the virus.

Democrats and Republican governors in blue states appear to have benefited the most from their approach to the crisis, while Republicans in deep-red states have largely suffered if they did not take strong action against the virus.

Phil Murphy of New Jersey, a Democrat, is the only governor up for reelection in 2021. His response to COVID-19 has boosted his chances, with polls showing him at a 60 percent approval rating, Politico reported. Murphy's approval rating in February, 2020 was just 41 percent, according to a Fairleigh Dickinson University survey.

Murphy isn't the only governor to experience a startling increase in his approval but many of his Democratic colleagues have found the effect fleeting, while some previously popular governors have seen their approval rating decline, often in sharp terms.

Alabama's Kay Ivey, a Republican, had consistently been one of the country's most popular leaders, enjoying 63 percent support in an NBC/Survey Monkey poll in July, 2019.

That rating had fallen to just 48 percent the following year, according to a survey by researchers at Harvard, Rutgers, Northwestern and Northeastern Universities.

How Other Governors Have Fared

The State of the Nation: A 50-State COVID-19 Survey's executive approval updates provide key insights into governors' ratings in relation to their handling of COVID-19, particularly in states where polling is infrequent.

The figures are prepared by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public's Policy Preferences Across States, an academic-led project involving several leading colleges.

Governors' approval and their handling of the pandemic have been closely linked for the past year.

Georgia's Brian Kemp, a Republican, had an approval rating of 42 percent in a University of Georgia poll on January 30—down from 53 percent—and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, also a Republican, saw a decline from 52 percent to just 37 percent by July last year. Reynolds' approval for handling had improved by October, rising to 42 percent.

Arizona's Doug Ducey had an approval rating of just 35 percent in an October Suffolk University/USA TODAY Network poll, down from 59 percent at the start of June per Arizona Public Opinion Pulse.

Like Newsom, Ducey is facing a recall effort. The GOP-led state legislature is also trying to strip Ducey, a Republican, of his emergency powers because of his decision to issue executive orders closing or restricting businesses during the pandemic.

Ivey, Kemp, Reynolds and Ducey had previously been critical of COVID-19 shutdowns in their states. Republican governors who took a more proactive approach appear to have benefited in polling.

Larry Hogan of Maryland, Phil Scott of Vermont and Charlie Baker of Massachusetts—all popular Republican governors—have maintained high approval ratings. Their approach to the pandemic was more aggressive than others in the GOP.

The November edition of the COVID-19 Consortium's executive approval update found that all three enjoyed approval ratings over 65 percent. Hogan's approval stood at 73 percent on October 27, according to a Gonzales poll.

Scott won 55 percent approval in a VPR-Vermont PBS poll on September 22 and Baker currently enjoys 74 percent approval, according to a MassINC Polling survey released on February 22. Scott won a third term in November with more than 68 percent of the vote.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine and New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, both Republicans who took an aggressive approach to the virus, continue to enjoy widespread support. A Spectrum News/Ipsos poll released on October 21 showed DeWine with a 67 percent overall approval rating, while Sununu won reelection last year with just over 65 percent.

Virginia's Ralph Northam and Michigan's Gretchen Whitmer are both Democrats leading what are traditionally seen as swing states, though Virginia hasn't voted for a Republican in a presidential election since 2004. They've improved their standing since the pandemic began.

Northam's approval was up to 56 percent from last year's 49 percent, according to a Washington Post-Schar School poll published on October 23.

A poll commissioned in February by The Detroit News showed Whitmer with 58 percent job approval ahead of her reelection bid next year, a slight decline from 59 percent in October. However, her approval rating in the same poll in January 2020 was just 43.3 percent.

Pennsylvania's Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has seen his approval rating on the virus dip below 50 percent. The state voted for Donald Trump in 2016 before opting for President Joe Biden in 2020.

Wolf had a high approval rating for his actions toward the start of the pandemic—57 percent in April—but that has gradually declined, falling to just 46 percent in October, according to the latest COVID-19 Consortium figures.

A Washington Post/Survey Monkey poll in May showed Wolf had 64 percent approval for his handling of the pandemic. That rating appears to have slipped in line with many other governors.

In Wisconsin, another state that turned from red to blue in 2020, Democrat Tony Evers has seen his approval rating decline significantly since the pandemic began. Evers approval rating in February 2020 was 51 percent. This rose to 65 percent in late March.

A Marquette Law School poll found approval of his handling of the virus stood at 50 percent between October 21 and 25.

Some previously unpopular governors have received a boost from their handling of COVID-19. Rhode Island's Raimondo was the most unpopular governor in the country in 2019, though she had slipped into third place by January 2020.

However, a survey from the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public's Policy Preferences Across States released on November 13 showed Raimondo with an approval rating of 61 percent, putting her in the top six performers nationwide, a significant improvement.

Similarly, Connecticut's Ned Lamont, a Democrat, has seen his popularity grow. A Sacred Heart University survey published on October 30 gave him 53 percent job performance, up from 41 percent in April.

Alaska's Mike Dunleavy has also succeeded in improving his standing. Facing a potential recall election before the pandemic began, the Republican had a 31 percent approval rating in the summer of 2019, The Midnight Sun reported.

The most recent COVID-19 Consortium executive approval update shows that in October he enjoyed 48 percent approval for his handling of the virus—down from a high of 61 percent in late April, but up one point from September.

Dunleavy had introduced several disaster declarations, the most recent of which expired in February, but mandated few restrictions in the state.

However, a COVID-19 poll bounce has been far from universal. Oregon's Kate Brown, a Democrat, sank from 61 percent approval for her handling of COVID in late April to 43 percent in October, per the November COVID-19 Consortium executive approval update.

Idaho's Brad Little dropped from 64 percent to 40 percent and Oklahoma's Stitt from 51 percent to won 38 percent approval.

Ige in Hawaii never was popular to begin with, starting at 36 percent, peaking at 43 percent in late June, and then plummeting to just 26 percent in October.

Greg Abbott and Joe Biden in Texas
US President Joe Biden and Texas Governor Greg Abbott (L) listen to officials at the Harris County Emergency Operations Center in Houston, Texas on February 26, 2021. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

Taking into account figures from September and October, the report also noted that Mississippi's Tate Reeves and South Carolina's Henry McMaster, both Republicans, enjoyed 40 percent approval of how they were dealing with the pandemic.

Reeves offers an interesting case study in the effect of COVID-19 on approval ratings. He assumed office on January 14, 2020—just weeks before the pandemic hit the United States—and has seen his popularity tumble.

Criticized for not implementing more stringent public health measures, Reeves' approval stands at just 34 percent, according to a Millsaps College/Chism Strategies poll published on January 5. His approval had been as high as 50 percent in June.

McMaster has also faced strong criticism for his handling of the pandemic after he ordered businesses to close but then reopened them in a move some considered too fast. He's also refused to endorse a statewide mask mandate other than in public buildings and entertainment venues.

Kristi Noem of South Dakota dipped from 43 percent in April to 39 percent in October, per the COVID-19 Consortium executive approval update. The Republican grabbed nationwide attention for her refusal to issue stay-at-home orders or to close businesses.

Her counterpart in North Dakota, Republican Doug Burgum, was reelected in 2020 with 69 percent of the vote. He had a 79 percent approval rating in May.

Burgum's victory in a deep red state didn't come as a surprise. He publicly-defended wearing face masks but also caused controversy by asking COVID-positive health workers to keep working.

An NBC News report on February 9 described public health measures in the Dakotas as "flimsy or nonexistent" in spring and summer.

Asa Hutchinson of Arkansas, another Republican, began with 61 percent approval in April before tumbling to 34 percent in September, then recovering sharply to 48 percent the following month.

In West Virginia, Republican Jim Justice was elected to a second term in November with almost 65 percent of the votes cast. Restrictions in the state have been more substantial than North or South Dakota.

It's a similar story in Indiana, where Republican Eric Holcomb had 72 percent approval in an October poll, though his handling of the virus won 50 percent support in the most recent COVID-19 Consortium survey.

Wyoming's Mark Gordon has seen his approval rating fall 6 points over the course of the pandemic, with 60 percent approving of him in a University of Wyoming's Wyoming Survey and Analysis Center poll in October.

Tennessee's Bill Lee has seen his approval rating fall 7 points, according to a Vanderbilt University poll published in December. The Republican's approval stood at 57 percent, down from 64 percent in May. Lee has been criticized for spending millions in state money on a contract for COVID-19 testing to a politically-connected firm.

Kentucky's Andy Beshear, a Democrat, won 53 percent support for the job he's doing in a Mason-Dixon poll published on October 22, while 54 percent approved of his handling of the virus in the latest COVID-19 Consortium findings.

That's a major decline from the 67 percent the survey found in April amid clashes with the Republican-controlled state legislature over his response.

Another Democrat leading a traditionally red state, John Bel Edwards of Louisiana, saw 56 percent job approval in a UNO Survey Research Center survey in November.

He had a 50 percent approval rating during his reelection bid in 2019, according to a Nexstar poll conducted by JMC Analytics and Polling.

And in the Midwest, Laura Kelly of Kansas, a Democrat, still had a 57 percent approval in October, though this was down from 68 percent in the early months of the pandemic.

Mike Parson of Missouri and Pete Ricketts of Nebraska, both Republicans, have seen their approval ratings decline sharply to below 50 percent. Parson's stood at 41 percent in October, down from April's 60 percent, and Ricketts recorded 36 percent in the fall, a drop from 63 percent in spring.

Forty-seven percent of North Carolina voters approved of Democrat Roy Cooper in a High Point University Poll on October 2. In February, the same poll put his job approval at just 40 percent.

Cooper's approval for his handling of the pandemic in the COVID-19 Consortium survey has also slumped to below 50 percent, reaching 48 percent in October, down from a high of 60 percent in April.

Democratic governors in blue states have largely managed to maintain their relatively high approval ratings over the course of the pandemic. In Colorado, 55 percent of voters said they had a positive opinion of Jared Polis in a Healthier Colorado poll in December.

However, this is a decline from the 66 percent approval he enjoyed in a May poll from Keating Research, OnSight Public Affairs and Mike Melanson. His approval in June 2019 was just 50 percent.

Illinois' JB Pritzker commanded similar support in September, when the COVID-19 Consortium showed 57 percent for his handling of the pandemic. However, his rating had fallen to just 49 percent in October from an April high of 63 percent.

Many governors have seen the same effect: Very high approval ratings at the beginning of the virus that have now largely flattened out.

Delaware's John Carney was reelected in November with more than 59 percent of the vote. His approval rating on COVID-19 had risen to 60 percent in September.

Maine's Janet Mills had 54 percent approval in September, down from some 67 percent in April, according to the Bangor Daily News. Morning Consult reported that her approval rating was 47 percent in January 2020.

Minnesota's Tim Waltz commanded 57 percent of public support for his handling of the pandemic in a Mason-Dixon Polling Strategy survey for MPR News in September.

That represented a decline from 65 percent in May 2020 but puts Waltz on much the same footing as many of his Democratic colleagues. Waltz's approval rating in a Morning Consult poll on September 30, 2019 was just 51 percent, according to the APM Research Lab.

Jay Inslee of Washington, another reliably Democratic state, has an approval rating of 52 percent, according to a KING 5 News poll from February 11. This is a sharp decline from 61 percent in May and 60 percent in July.

The same poll reported on February 5, 2020, however, that just 41 percent of the state's voters approved of Inslee, so he is still nine points above his rating before the pandemic was declared.

Nevada's Steve Sisolak saw a similar decline in his approval rating during the fourth quarter of 2020. The Nevada Poll™, conducted by WPA Intelligence for the Review-Journal and AARP Nevada, and published on October 14, showed that 46 percent of voters approved of his handling of the pandemic—down from 64 percent in May.

And in New Mexico, a Public Policy Polling survey published on October 8 showed 50 percent job approval for Michelle Lujan Grisham. In 2019, Grisham was one of the nation's most unpopular governors.

Two serving governors—Utah's Spencer Cox and Montana's Greg Gianforte—took office on January 4, 2021. Neither of these Republicans ran against an incumbent governor who'd been managing the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gianforte defeated then Lt. Governor Mike Cooney, who worked with Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat.

A Montana State University poll in May showed that 72 percent of Montanans supported Bullock's initial stay-at-home order, but Gianforte defeated Cooney in November with 53 percent of the vote.

The political effects of COVID-19 have been mixed. Most governors initially won widespread approval for their reaction, often surpassing any popularity they'd previously achieved. But as the pandemic has worn on, fewer Americans have expressed approval of their governor's approach.

In most cases, governors who took more aggressive action have been rewarded, while those who resisted strong public health measures have seen their approval fall. Florida's DeSantis and South Dakota's Noem have bucked this trend to a noteworthy degree, however.

Further polling may become available as the one-year anniversary of the pandemic approaches in March, but when it comes to the long-term political implications, it's too early to tell.