Europeans are rallying around the flag, but winter might be coming

2020-06-09

Although not all governments were well-prepared and equipped to deal with the consequences of the pandemic, we can see a general “rally around the flag” effect: the popularity of ruling parties has been increasing in most European countries since the coronavirus outbreak reached the continent. Out of the 24 European countries we examined, the government has become more popular in 15 since the virus appeared. We found robust gains (more than ten percentage points) in 3 countries, moderate gains (3-9 pp) in twelve countries, and stagnating popularity (-2…+2 pp) in 7 countries. The governing parties’ support faltered since the beginning of the pandemic only in Romania and the UK. The increased confidence in governmental parties might prove temporary after entering the phase of post-lockdown economic crisis management, but other political issues not related to the pandemic can also influence these trends. This pattern is already visible in the UK, where the conservatives gained considerable support during the first months of the crisis, but their supporter base is now shrinking.

How has the pandemic changed the trust in governmental parties? This question is dominating political discourses since the beginning of the crisis, and we can hear various assessments from different countries.

Are there any clear patterns in the trends? We aimed to examine this question using Politico’s Poll of Polls subsite – an aggregator that collects available surveys in European countries and estimates the popularity of parties on a daily basis – and Johns Hopkins University’s infographic on infection trends. Using these datasets, we investigated how the popularity of ruling parties in European countries changed since the first cases were confirmed in their respective countries.

We found a very strong “rally around the flag” effect: a growing support for ruling parties. This is in line with social science literature: when politics is around the questions of life and death, voters tend to support the incumbent leaders.  Out of the 24 countries with sufficient data for analysis, we saw the following patterns (see infographics 1 and 2 below for more information):

  • Robust popularity growth in three European countries (more than 10 percentage points): Netherlands (+15%), Germany (+14%), and Ireland (+12%).
  • Moderate growth (+3…+9% change) in twelve countries: Denmark (+7%), Finland (+6%), Sweden (+6%), Croatia (+6%), Austria (+5%), Norway (+5%), France (+5%), Portugal (+5%), Lithuania (+4%), Poland (+3%), Malta (+3%), and Greece (+3%).
  • Stagnation (-2…+2% change) in seven countries: Estonia (+2%), Hungary (+2%), Cyprus (+1%), Italy (0%), Czechia (-1%), Slovenia (-1%), and Spain (-2%).
  • Considerable decline (-3% or more) in two countries: the UK (-4%) and Romania (-6%).

 

In more than two-thirds of the countries we could see a considerable rise in governmental popularity. While we do not see very clear geographical patterns, we observe a larger popularity boost in Western and Northern Europe. The Dutch coalition gained the most support. Since the first confirmed case in late February, the popularity of the ruling parties in the Netherlands increased by 15 percentage points altogether. The German coalition gained slightly less, 14 percentage points, Ireland’s Fine Gael alone increased its popularity by 12 pp. At the same time, governmental popularity is mostly stagnant in Baltic States, Southern Europe, and Central Eastern Europe (with Romania’s ruling party as the largest “loser”).

While it is too early to predict, we can assume that governmental parties that could increase or gain their voter support will face challenges keeping their popularity in the coming months and years - as the pandemic will give way to a cruel economic recession that they have to steer through. We might already see this pattern in the United Kingdom, where the tories gained considerable support during the first months, but now we can see that their voter base is shrinking. After 120 days, their popularity is 3 pp less than at the outbreak of the pandemic.

 

Methodology

We calculated popularity change by comparing the last polling result before the first coronavirus patient appeared in the given country, using Politico’s Kalman smoothed, rounded, daily data.

Disclaimer

We could not calculate if the changes were statistically significant using the aggregate results of Politico.

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