Rallying Around the [State] Flag: How COVID-19 Grew America’s Affinity for Governors

 /  Dec. 21, 2020, 11:56 a.m.

usmap with state flags

From masked graduations, to plexiglass-divided dining halls, COVID-19 has conspicuously impacted American culture. And while many of the changes to daily life may have seemed obvious, like carrying around hand sanitizer or keeping a distance, no one anticipated “Governor Andrew Cuomo prayer candles” being sold at NYC bodegas to be a result of COVID-19. This pandemic, as well as the media coverage that ensued, has changed the way Americans see their governors. When their constituents needed them most, they fought for supplies in a national scrimmage and rose to the responsibilities that President Donald Trump diverted to them. Trump’s governance vacuum ultimately left the Coronavirus response up to state and local officials, setting the stage for a newfound, national adoration toward the country’s governors.

Since the pandemic's inception, Trump has abdicated his role as the nation's leader by spreading dangerous disinformation and halting mitigation efforts rather than leading them. He continuously touted invalid claims like “It’s going to disappear” or that the country was “rounding the corner” on COVID-19. He contradicted medical advice from health professionals and endangered the lives of millions by spreading falsehoods about the existence and contagion of the virus. 

Along with cognizantly spreading lies, Trump and his White House never followed any plan for virus management. Despite having a precedent pandemic plan in their original 2017 policy rollout, the Trump administration did not commit to any strategy for managing the pandemic. Their original plan was devised in the event that a virulent strain of the common flu emerged. The main goals were to stock and distribute testing materials, make significant early efforts to mitigate the spread, have consistent and accurate messaging across all levels of government, aid the World Health Organization in any way, and increase PPE inventory.

Instead of following his own policy, Trump made no effort to expand testing capacity, challenged medical advice, undermined CDC messaging, defunded the WHO, and allowed hazardous shortages of masks and ventilators to exist in states he considered to be “unfriendly to him.” As a result of his erratic and misinformed response to COVID-19, the country was left in chaos and in need of leadership. In the absence of presidential competence, governors stepped up and filled Trump’s role.

Several Democratic governors, such as Governor Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) and Governor Gavin Newsom (D-CA), took the president’s inaction as an opportunity to headline the national response, and the profile of governors in American politics has risen ever since. While Trump’s motivations to end the pandemic were economically-driven, Cuomo and Newsom’s desires to flatten the curve were driven by death-rates. Governors were concerned with the health of their constituents and as a result provided much more prudent, comprehensive build-back plans than the president. Governors communicated safety protocols to their constituents. They worked with brokers to secure ventilators, bought masks for their state stockpiles, and relayed new findings to their citizens regularly. These months of leadership gave way to a national adoration for our governors, as well as a newfound notion of what people want to hear during an emergency.  The COVID-19 pandemic made it clear that, in times of crisis, most Americans do not want to be blindly told “it will be over soon” or that they should return blissfully to work. They want science-driven policy and communicative transparency.

The governors whose popularity numbers soared were the ones that governed cautiously and locked down. Numerous Democratic governors, as well as Maryland Governor Larry Hogan (R-MD) and Ohio Governor Mike DeWine (R-OH), implemented some of the most drastic lockdown measures in the country, and their constituents thanked them for it. FiveThirtyEight polling, taken in April, showed gubernatorial approval rates to be averaging twenty-five points higher than Trump’s. Since the start of the pandemic, governors Newsom, Cuomo, Inslee, Whitmer, and Pritzker have all exhibited steep spikes in public interest by way of Google search trends. Between the weeks March 1-7 and March 15-21, Newsom’s Google search rates increased by 200 percent. During New York City’s late March outbreak, Cuomo’s search rates were 283 percent higher than pre-March 2020. Gubernatorial favorability has grown so exponentially that some have been pressed about their ambitions towards higher-office in the future. Trends like #PresidentNewsom occupied Twitter in the early months of the pandemic and an NBC poll showed Cuomo leading in the 2024 democratic field. 

In wake of the COVID-19 crisis, NBC found that seven in ten Americans trust their governor over Trump on COVID-19. By July 2020, the fourth month of the pandemic’s disruption of American life, many people went to their city’s health department website before the CDC’s for information. Local information is more specific to the current health of that area than national figures, and it’s also more focused on the goals of that region.

With eyes glued to the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) website and case-load curves throughout March, seeing governors emphasizing science and staying home eased anxieties. While Trump fought over airtime with the virus and his administration funneled health experts through their revolving task-force door, governors held informational press conferences, rolled out mask mandates, and did legislative work to expand testing and hospital capacities for their constituents.

Along with producing policy, governors added a layer of humanity and charisma to the COVID-19 climate. Since March, cable news has mutated into a spout of death rates and harsh outlooks. Americans were thirsty for definite answers, for information, and the news narratives were scaring people into tuning in. In contrast to the alarmist news cycle, governors told the truth in a level-headed manner, listened to scientists, and did it charismatically. Newsom’s charming briefings and Cuomo’s play-fight interviews with his CNN journalist brother, Christopher Cuomo, allowed Americans to, even just for a second, catch their breath. The networks awarded governors with hours of airtime for press conferences at the beginning of the outbreak: as the networks raked in ratings, the politicians raked in rapport. Cuomo’s disciplined tone and unified front personified what it was to be “New York Tough.” Among California Democrats, Newsom has boasted an 88 percent approval rate since the pandemic’s inception, as well as a 63 percent rate among California Independents. The stressful stream of early news numbed Americans; through governing with charm, the governors filled the “strong, beloved, leader” vacancy that we typically expect from the president.

Looking forward, past the vaccine’s distribution and after the curve has flattened, it is unclear what the sociopolitical footprints of COVID-19 will be. Will governors play an active, more national, role in crisis-decision making from now on? America’s COVID-19 mitigation successes were the result of state leadership, and it is imaginable that governors will continue to lead America in other ventures from here forward. It was the governors who told us to stay home; It was the governors who secured life-saving supplies for their states; It will be the governors who history remembers as our “wartime” president(s). 

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Chelsea Seifer


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