World·Analysis

Boris Johnson saw uptick in popularity after he contracted coronavirus. Will Trump see the same?

In the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump's positive coronavirus test, many are speculating about what impact it will have on his re-election chances. The example of U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who tested positive in late March, might offer some answers. 

British PM's COVID-19 diagnosis boosted his popularity but not his government's

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, pictured outside Downing Street in London Wednesday, announced on March 27 that he tested positive for coronavirus. He was hospitalized on April 5 and moved to the intensive care unit a day later and discharged April 12. Although he saw a small boost in his polls, not everyone agrees it was because of his diagnosis, and public support for his government remained unaffected. (Hannah McKay/Reuters)

It was early on in the coronavirus pandemic that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that he had contracted the deadly virus, and the news prompted a wave of sympathy from across the U.K. and around the world. 

Now, just over six months later, as a coronavirus cases are again rising around the world, U.S. President Donald Trump and his wife, Melania Trump, have also tested positive for the virus, which has so far infected close to 7.3 million people in the U.S., according to an online tracker maintained by the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. 

With speculation swirling about how the diagnosis will impact the president's re-election campaign, some are turning to the examples of other world leaders who have contracted the virus for answers.

Johnson's experience, is one that might shine a light on the path ahead for Trump if he makes a full recovery. 

Johnson saw rise in support, but his government did not 

In Johnson's case, the prime minister's bout with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, in late March did not appear to encourage support for his government.

It was, however, followed by a small surge in his own popularity. 

Speaking with CBC on Friday, British polling expert Sir John Curtice said Johnson's personal popularity had already been on the rise in the days before March 27, when he announced that he had tested positive for the virus.

A man reads a newspaper outside St Thomas' Hospital where Johnson was admitted. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

However, after his hospitalization on April 5, Johnson's popularity surged again, rising from 54 per cent to 60 per cent, according to a YouGov poll. He was eventually discharged April 12 after several days in the intensive care unit and said his case "could have gone either way."

Whether or not Johnson's rise in support was "a consequence of the fact that he got the disease" is unclear, Curtice said. What is certain, he said, is that the British prime minister's rise in popularity was short-lived.

"His popularity started to fall away pretty rapidly," Curtice said.

Johnson's unfavourability improved after he was released from hospital, falling from 42 per cent of people saying he was doing badly as prime minister on March 16 to 26  per cent on April 13, according to YouGov polling data. It was back up to 50 per cent by June 8 amid criticism of the government's pandemic response. 

Support for his government had been on the rise in the days ahead of Johnson's positive coronavirus test, reaching just over 50 per cent ahead of his announcement, according to YouGov. 

It then began to decline, falling to well below 40 per cent over the months of May and June as the government continued to face criticism over its approach to keeping the spread of COVID-19 in check, particularly after it came to light that top Johnson aide Dominic Cummings had travelled despite having coronavirus symptoms. 

Speaking with CBC on Friday, Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said there is "no evidence" to suggest that the rise in Johnson's poll numbers was directly related to his testing positive for coronavirus.

"Actually, there doesn't seem to be much of a bounce for Boris due to him coming down with coronavirus," he said. 

Support for Johnson peaked at 66 per cent just after his release from hospital but was down to 43 per cent by June 8, lower than it was before his announcement of a positive coronavirus test.

"Clearly, there was a lot of human sympathy for him, [but] that didn't actually translate either into a boost to his own popularity or to that of the government," Bale said.

Timing is key

With the U.S. election set for Nov. 3, timing, Curtice stressed, could be everything. 

If Trump's popularity follows a similar trajectory to Johnson's, it could potentially be a game changer in the 2020 election. Prior to the news Friday, the RealClearPolitics polling average had Democratic challenger former vice-president Joe Biden just over seven points ahead of the president in the presidential race. 

However, Curtice said there are a number of variables at play, including whether voters will see the president's diagnosis as a potential consequence of "reckless" behaviour.

The British public expressed support for Johnson while he fought the virus, but that didn't necessarily translate in the polls. (Carl Recine/Reuters)

While Johnson was "amongst the last people to stop shaking others' hands," Curtice said, he managed to largely escape criticism that his contracting the virus was a result of him"being reckless when it came to taking precautions.

Trump, meanwhile, has already faced strong criticism over his response to the pandemic, with the president accused of not taking the COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. seriously enough, particularly after resuming holding campaign rallies in packed venues.

"If you are somebody who is already relatively critical of Trump and who thinks he screwed up on coronavirus, you are going to think this just goes to show that what he was doing was not adequate [to prevent the spread of coronavirus]," Curtice said. 

WATCH | White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows updates media on status of Trump and first lady:

Trump in good spirits, energetic, White House says

World

2 months agoVideo
6:54
White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said U.S. President Donald Trump is working and will continue to do so despite contracting the novel coronavirus. 6:54

Partisan lens persists

In addition to how Trump's contracting the virus is perceived by voters, the impact the positive test has on the president's support could also depend on how severe his case of coronavirus is, as YouGov pointed out in a statement published on Twitter. 

"How likely is this (Johnson's polling) to translate to the case of Donald Trump catching COVID-19 in the U.S.?" YouGov said. "It's impossible to say, not least because Trump will not necessarily end up hospitalised." 

Ultimately, Curtice said, "what happens next is kind of crucial, and we know enough about this to know that nobody knows what the progress of the disease will be." 

"In the end ... a lot of people will simply view this through a partisan lens. Democrats will go, 'I told you so'. Republicans will go, 'Well, that was tough luck.'"

WATCH | Trump rejects criticism that he downplayed the pandemic:

Trump denies downplaying coronavirus, insists again it will disappear

World

2 months agoVideo
0:46
At an ABC News town hall, U.S. President Donald Trump claimed a coronavirus vaccine is just three to four weeks away. He also claimed that he never downplayed the virus publicly, despite evidence to the contrary. 0:46

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story mistakenly said Boris Johnson's support plunged to just over 30 per cent in May. In fact, it was his unfavourability, not his support, that fell to 26 per cent after his release from hospital April 12.
    Oct 02, 2020 1:44 PM ET

About the Author

Chantal Da Silva is a Canadian-British journalist who considers Toronto and London home. She typically writes features on immigration, human rights issues and politics.

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