Mitigation Success vs. Media Success on the Pandemic
I’ve written a fair amount about President Trump’s leadership failures during the COVID-19 pandemic, but as I’ve also pointed out, he’s far from the only elected leader whose handling of the crisis is worthy of sharp criticism.
An individual who immediately comes to mind is New York state governor, Andrew Cuomo. Like Trump, Cuomo downplayed the virus in those early weeks, insisting on February 7th, without evidence, that “catching the flu right now is a much greater risk than anything that has anything to do with coronavirus.”
Granted, Cuomo probably didn’t have as good of information at the time as our president, who — that very same day — told Bob Woodward that COVID-19 is “more deadly than even your strenuous flus.”
But in the weeks that followed, when coronavirus hell was breaking loose in his state, Cuomo was late to impose “shelter in place” restrictions, worked ineffectively with New York City mayor Bill de Blasio to coordinate government efforts (including hospital transfers and supplies), and unconscionably forced nursing homes to prematurely take back in covid-infected residents from hospitals.
Around 6,500 residents in long-term care facilities ended up dying from the virus, with thousands more infected.
Additionally, Cuomo waited until the very end of April before ceasing New York City’s 24/7 subway service (which had proven to be a key contributor to the virus's spread), and subjecting it to thorough cleanings.
There were other consequential mistakes, but you probably catch my drift. COVID-19 killed over 30,000 New Yorkers, the state’s infection and death rates reflected the worst cases scenarios of epidemiologists’ “flatten the curve” charts, and travelers from New York ended up spreading the virus throughout much of the rest of the country.
Of course, some grace should be extended to all leaders who’ve had to (and continue to have to) deal with the coronavirus. It’s an unenviable position to be in, and what we’re all living through right now is a complex, once-in-a-century crisis — one that is prone to all kinds of honest, well-intended screw-ups.
Still, crisis management is a responsibility that comes with the job of a democratically elected executive. These leaders should be held accountable for their COVID-19 performances. Those who’ve presided over relatively good results should be praised. Those who’ve presided over relatively terrible results probably shouldn’t be.
But rather amazingly, according to state approval ratings across the country, we’re seeing pretty much the opposite.
When you compare the COVID-19 job performance ratings of U.S. governors, you’ll find that of the ten at the top of the list (highest approval), eight of them are governors of states whose coronavirus death rates are over 60, per 100,000 people — a number that is well above average. Of the eight, six are Democrats. This includes Andrew Cuomo (who comes in at #7, with the second highest death-rate in the country), and New Jersey governor, Phil Murphy (who’s tied at #8, with the top death-rate of all 50 states).
The remaining two are Republicans, whose states have relatively low death rates.
Here are the numbers:
Now, let’s look at the governors with the lowest approval ratings on COVID-19:
As you can see, nine of the bottom ten are Republicans, and only two of those individual’s states have a COVID-19 death rate of over 60, per 100,000 people (the highest being roughly half of what we see in Murphy’s state).
Here’s a graphical representation of this phenomenon:
So, what’s going on here?
Sure, there are other factors beyond infection and death rates that should be considered when evaluating a governor’s effectiveness in dealing with the health crisis… like the economy. But there doesn’t seem to be much correlation between the economic health in these states and the polling sentiment toward their leaders. Another consideration may be a general feeling of relief, in some of these states, that the numbers have fallen and the worst is hopefully behind them.
But I think a much better explanation exists, and to understand it, it helps to go back to Governor Cuomo. By any statistical measure, his state did very poorly. A lot of bad decisions were made, and the human toll was staggering. Since January, close to half a million New Yorkers have had COVID-19. And those are just the confirmed cases; the actual number is assuredly much higher.
(Ironically, those heavy casualties are probably, in part, responsible for why the infection rate is finally so low in New York: many New Yorkers have already had the coronavirus, acquired the antibodies, and are no longer spreaders.)
On television, however, Cuomo always came across quite well.
The manner in which he composed himself was impressive. He displayed an engaged, take-charge attitude, but also spoke in a comforting, empathetic manner. He found opportunities to talk about his own family’s challenges during crisis, and those watching found him endearing and relatable. He did buddy humor with this brother Chris on CNN, and he became a media darling, even winning the hearts of some Fox News personalities:
— Melissa Francis (@MelissaAFrancis) March 10, 2020
Leave me alone. I'm having my @NYGovCuomo therapy time. Come back in 15.
— Melissa Francis (@MelissaAFrancis) March 19, 2020
Also, Cuomo is a Democrat. That’s always going to be a stark media advantage in politics (both nationally and locally), but during a pandemic, it has proven to be an even larger one.
While governors like Cuomo and Murphy have rarely faced any significant criticism from mainstream media outlets over their handling of the crisis, Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, practically became a poster-child for pandemic mismanagement. In reality, Florida — a state with a large elderly population this is particularly susceptible to the virus — has a COVID-19 death rate that is less than half of both New York’s and New Jersey’s.
In late April and early May, when Georgia’s Republican governor Brian Kemp was incrementally re-opening his state’s economy ahead of federal guidelines, he story was all over that national news and faced intense media scrutiny. You’d be forgiven if you didn’t know that, at the very same time, my governor here in Colorado (liberal Democrat, Jared Polis) was doing essentially the same thing. In his case, the media shrugged.
Over the last few months, I’m sure you’ve heard plenty of coronavirus-related national criticism of Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas. But have you heard anything about Ned Lamont, the Democratic governor of Connecticut, whose state’s death rate is more than double that of the Lone Star State?
None of this is to say that those (and other) Republican governors are above some of the criticism they’ve received. They absolutely aren’t. In fact, I agree with some of that criticism. But there’s a clear media discrepancy at work here, and as the data suggests, it looks to be playing a significant role in skewing the public's perception.
Whether it plays a role in November's state elections, we'll have to see.
Editor's Note: In an earlier version of this column, Governor Larry Hogan of Maryland was incorrectly labeled in a chart as a Democrat. He is in fact a Republican. The problem was corrected.