COVID Impact: State Governments.

Governments at every level—local, state, and federal—have taken an uneven approach in their response to COVID-19. Regardless of party or their place in the country, governors’ reactions have broadly fit three categories. Governors who increased their public visibility to ensure their message reaches a higher number of people
  • Governor Mike DeWine (Ohio) was the first governor to call for a statewide closure of schools on March 12, the first to ban mass gatherings, and the first to shut down bars and restaurants. To offset the shock of implementing such stringent policies earlier than most, DeWine’s daily press briefings and regular appearances on cable news shows helped him communicate to a larger audience and explain the reasoning behind his decisions.
  • Governor Andrew Cuomo (New York) has also received praise across the country for his steady leadership and constant communication with the general public about New York’s response to the virus. His lighthearted interviews with his brother, Chris, on CNN and his daily slideshows show a genuine, heartfelt side of the governor that is reassuring to many. His constant updates, both on social media and on cable news, provide a steady stream of information to New York residents that keeps them abreast of how their state is responding to this outbreak.
Governors who used data to guide their decision-making and sell those decisions to their constituents 
  • Governor Gavin Newsom (California) unveiled a six-point plan to re-open his state, emphasizing the importance of data like the flattening of the curve, hospitalization rates, and the number of people in ICU beds. Without giving an exact date, this data is a tool that can help constituents better understand the state of the virus and when life may return to normal.
  • Governor Larry Hogan (Maryland) began publishing confirmed case data for COVID-19 by zip code to show the disparate impact of the virus on minority communities. That data guided the state’s response, highlighting areas where it can do better, and help address the disproportionate impact on the state’s black community.
Governors who delayed action out of a desire to avoid economic and social disruption 
  • Governor Ron DeSantis (Florida) delayed a statewide stay-at-home order, letting spring breakers roam free despite growing concern about the virus in other parts of the country. Governor DeSantis justified his decision by pointing out that the White House Task Force had not yet recommended a stay-at-home order.
Governor Kristi Noem (South Dakota) presides over a state with one of the largest coronavirus clusters in the United States—more than 300 workers at a pork-processing plant. However, she has resisted calls for a statewide stay-at-home order, citing the principle of individual liberty and the limitations of government authority. By putting the decision-making power in the hands of the people of South Dakota, Governor Noem is charting a politically risky course, but one that may align with her constituents’ political beliefs. The political consequences The benefits and drawbacks to these strategies aren’t just theoretical—there are real, tangible reputational consequences to over or under managing a crisis, and communications is an important component of that approach. The governors in this analysis who communicated aggressively received a significant bump in approval ratings while the governors who failed to inform and assure their constituents suffered politically.
  • Governor DeWine went from a 49% approval rating before COVID-19 to an 80% rating.
  • Governor Cuomo went from a 47% approval rating before COVID-19 to a 79% rating.
  • Governor Newsom went from a 42% approval rating before COVID-19 to an 83% rating.
Those are not small jumps in approval—those are double-digit increases that cross party lines. Granted, none of these governors are up for reelection in 2020, so it is hard to predict how their crisis management will affect their political futures, but the insight their successes offer is meaningful. These bumps are not the typical “rally ‘round the flag” effect. Governors seen to be under-managing the crisis are suffering. Governor DeSantis, similar to President Trump, has suffered in the polls. Before COVID-19, DeSantis was at a 58% approval rating, but slipped a full seven points to a 51% approval rating as the crisis worsened and he increasingly deferred to the White House. In Florida, that shift clearly reflects the public’s growing dissatisfaction with inaction in the midst of a pandemic. The Takeaway Constituents want to be informed. Less isn’t more in this case. They want to know what their leaders are doing to keep them healthy, safe, and prosperous. So, if there’s anything to learn from the governors responding to COVID-19, it’s this: avoiding the issue or pretending it doesn’t exist only hurts you in the eyes of constituents. Over-inform, over-communicate, and equip your people—whether that’s customers, constituents, or partners—to make their own decisions with the knowledge that you are doing your best to help them.


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