What decides a politician’s fate in the Time of Covid?
Similar places have had vastly different pandemics.
The political calculus is one part policy and many parts social perception.
Skillful political actions and empathy ultimately move the polls.
“Win or lose, we go shopping after the election.”
Imelda Marcos, Former Philippines First Lady, Undated
We are starting to see the political impacts of Covid come pouring down on electorates everywhere.
The November US results are the most eagerly anticipated, with the biggest question being whether President Trump is fatally or only incidentally harmed by his unique and off-putting crisis management style.
Our leaders in British Columbia, where I live, decided to leap ahead of the Americans with a snap election that delivered a tasty treat just before Halloween.
NDP Premier Horgan, already the most popular leader in Canada, leisurely romped to his desired majority government. He garnered an estimated 45 percent of the vote, up from 40 percent in the 2017 election, and the greatest NDP win ever.
This result was no surprise, since there has been next to no pandemic in BC (see below), lighter government restrictions than most other places, and a broad perception of competent political management.
But it did get me thinking about the link between Covid and politics.
Was John Horgan the singular man for his time, a leader whose political skills turned viral dross into gold?
Or was BC simply lucky in avoiding the worst of the pandemic, but still gave all of the credit for this relatively happy outcome to the government?
I decided to look around the world at other jurisdictions like BC, in order to shed some light on the issue.
My guidepost for an apples-to-apples comparison was choosing places that were similarly sized, urbanized, prosperous, open, and democratic societies, and with high quality governance and health care systems.
The short list includes neighboring regions (Alberta, Alaska, Washington, and Oregon), Nordic countries (Iceland, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, and Finland), smaller Western European nations (Ireland, Belgium, Netherlands, Switzerland, and Austria), and four from Down Under (New Zealand and the larger Australian states of Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria).
The BC Advantage
Let’s start with BC itself.
As you can see from the next chart, there has been little evidence of a classic pandemic in this province, which would typically be marked by an exponential rise (and then collapse) in positive viral tests and mortality rates.
This chart, along with the others to come after, measures positive tests and deaths in rates per million people per day. Note that the left hand scale for positive tests is 20 times greater than for deaths, so the tan-colored line would be 20 times higher if it was shown on the same scale.
To put BC’s providential performance in context, I looked at WHO data to determine what a typical year of influenza and pneumonia deaths looks like.
Across my set of countries, the median jurisdiction reports just under 200 such deaths per million people per year. That translates into just over 1 death per million every second day of the year, or a daily death rate of 0.00005%.
Let’s call that the normal death rate. It’s quite low (and is even smaller when considering flu deaths alone, since they are a tiny fraction of pneumonia deaths).
The death rate for BC is so low that it barely shows up on the chart. So far in 2020, the Covid death rate here is 50 deaths per million, or only one-quarter of the normal death rate, and is especially notable since the flu has disappeared from BC, like elsewhere, this year. For those under age 70, the rate is only 8 deaths per million. It’s a real stretch to call it a pandemic.
Though some claim that BC people were especially virtuous in doing their part in controlling contagion, that is a line used everywhere around the world but with varying viral outcomes. It is far likelier that the luck of the draw (aided by a quick travel ban in March) led to a very mild epidemic.
So, partly as a result of great government concern for a relatively minor (but hugely distressing) problem, Premier Horgan graduated from a minority to majority government.
He does deserve credit for not hogging the limelight during the social crisis, leaving public communications and responsibility with his health minister and public health officer. That is certainly a political skill that payed off in spades.
What of BC’s neighboring states and province?
A quick look at their charts shows varying positive tests data but fairly low mortality.
The US states generally have higher test results, partly given the fact that they test more often (now well over a million a day) and therefore measure more people with Covid. Washington fared the worst here in terms of death rates and was one of the original sites of viral contagion in North America. We can also see a recent rise in positive tests (but not deaths) in Alaska and Alberta.
How have their politicians done in public polling? The answer for the US states, like BC, is “rather good”.
Washington Governor Inslee (D) is polling 16 points ahead of his Republican challenger, a 7 point improvement from the 2016 election.
Oregon Senator Merkley (D) is 20 points ahead of his rival and that is up 11 points since the 2014 election.
Alaska Senator Sullivan (R) has a far tighter race, up 3 points against his opponent, and that is slightly higher than his 2 point win in 2014.
The situation in Alberta is far more dire.
There, Premier Kenney remains the second worst rated premier in the country and his party (the UCP at 38%) is down about 7 points this year and off 17 points from their 2019 electoral win. He is one of the few politicians in the world to not capitalize on Covid.
Given Alberta’s low death rate of 67 per million in 2020, not much higher than BC, it is hard to blame this on pandemic facts or fears. That argument is even more persuasive when we consider Ontario and Quebec: they have much higher death rates of 210 and 715 per million, respectively, and premiers who are wildly popular.
It seems that pandemic management style counts, especially when Alberta’s oil-dependent economy and fiscal situation are also in such trouble.
The antipodean situation shows a rip-roaring pandemic that has come and gone in Victoria, but nothing much elsewhere in those two countries.
Of course, Prime Minister Ardern of New Zealand is famous for her successful Covid suppression strategy, literally closing down the entire country to completely chase the (barely present) virus away.
She was rewarded with a great political victory in October, scoring 5 points higher than her previous victory in 2017.
However, one can ask whether this was policy overkill, given the nearly identical Covid outcomes in Queensland that were achieved with a lighter (but still restrictive) regulatory touch.
Both of the Premiers in Queensland and New South Wales (and Australian federal Prime Minister Morrison) have ridden a wave of personal popularity in 2020.
Premier Berejiklian’s Liberals in the latter state sit at 68% and Queensland’s Premier Palaszczuk has a rating of 56%, up 22 points since earlier in the year. She and her Labor party are presently in an election, barely in front of the Liberals but with her ahead of the opposition leader by 24 points. The results are due in days.
That leaves Victoria Premier Andrews. He, like Alberta’s Kenney, has seen plunging popularity since June, down 20 full points.
This followed a truly exponential rise in positive tests and deaths in Victoria starting in June and a subsequent August decision to go for a hard lockdown of the state, precisely at the peak of contagion. Even with the dramatic drop in tests and deaths down to negligible levels in September, the Premier only eased the restrictions at the end of October due to growing criticism.
Unlike Premier Kenney, we can see a direct line of causality here from the virus and public policy to a negative political outcome.
Like BC, the Scandinavians have also mostly been spared from the pandemic. Every one of those countries has seen two surges in positive cases, but a steady decline in death rates since the spring.
Sweden is the poster child for a more laisser-faire approach to pandemic policy, even though they still had a number of restrictions on larger gatherings and recommendations for distancing.
The Nordic countries have also had low mask usage throughout 2020 and have consciously decided against broad mandatory policies based on their reading of the evidence.
Iceland’s nearly universal testing regime has not translated at all into higher deaths, while Sweden’s inability to keep Covid out of their long term care homes (and a much milder flu season last year that spared deaths) resulted in a much higher mortality rate there this year.
Sweden now has one of the lowest death rates in Europe and it is still falling, even with a rise in positive tests.
Scandinavian politicians have done well in this low- and post-pandemic environment.
Icelandic PM Bjarni Ben’s Independence Party is up 4 points this year, Norway’s Conservative PM Erna Solberg is up 5 points, Denmark PM Mette Frederiksen’s Social Democrats are up 3 points (though now fading), Swedish PM Stefan Löfven and his Social Democrats are up 2 points (and also fading), and Finland’s PM Sanna Marin and her Social Democrats are up 6 points.
No losers here.
The European nations most comparable to BC all had significant pandemics in the spring and are now seeing a sharp rise in positive tests and a much more subdued rise in deaths.
Belgium in 2020 has had one of the highest mortality rates in the world at 920 deaths per million, almost five times the annual normal rate of flu and pneumonia for our group.
The rise in positive cases is now off the charts at over 800 per million per day. This is also true of the Netherlands at 450 per million positive cases per day.
The first can be explained by the complications of Belgian politics, where the country has been without a formal government for two years until early October. The Dutch case perhaps proves again that solid pandemic management in the face of a viral menace, even if only perceptual, can work to a skilled politician’s advantage.
Ireland’s situation is like a mix of these Low countries and the state of Victoria, a story of a significant spring pandemic and improvement, followed by a rise in positive tests, a subtle rise in deaths, and then a renewed full lockdown (in Ireland’s case for six more weeks).
In one of 2020’s stark comparisons, the lockdown announcement came at the same time that “no lockdown” Sweden further eased their minimal restrictions for those citizens over 70 years old. Ireland now has one of the toughest pandemic policy stances in the world.
This careening viral and policy rollercoaster has not been well-received by the Irish electorate. Taoiseach Micheál Martin and his Fianna Fáil party are down 9 points from the February 2020 election and it would not be surprising to see a further drop over the course of the lockdown.
Finally, Switzerland and Austria, like the other European countries, are seeing a second round of exceptionally fast-rising positive cases and slow rising deaths.
Like Scandinavia, pandemic policy in both places has been relatively loose, with ratings of policy response stringency now between 35 and 45 out of 100.
The direct democracy system in Switzerland, combined with an annual rotation of leadership in the executive branch of government, makes it difficult to judge the political impact there. In Austria, PM Sebastian Kurz’s Austrian People’s Party is up both this year and against their 2019 election result by 2 points (though now fading).
The sharp spike in positive tests in these Alpine nations will likely test the relative political complacency in both countries.
So, what are the political lessons learned here?
The primary one for me is that the pandemic, even when it did not happen or was not very dangerous or is now greatly moderated or is already over, is very much a perceptual social issue.
This means that political action and empathy will be well received by most people and will be rewarded in the polls. The lesson for politicians is to show up every day in a highly visible and competent way and be seen to be doing and caring.
The actual impact of policy on the viral outbreak is far more questionable.
We can see across our countries that there are great differences in the severity and timing of the pandemic and this does not at all match the policy decisions (which are anyways usually late).
Also, the evidence from Alberta, Ireland, and Victoria suggests that the actual magnitude of the pandemic does not necessarily drive political popularity, since their experiences vary so much and they all dropped in the polls.
Back to BC, we have been one of the chosen lands in 2020, with an extremely modest epidemic and therefore correspondingly light government policies.
We should not fool ourselves: it is not our collective virtue that determined our fate (since we have behaved like everyone else on the planet) but rather the particular local dynamics of an implacable natural virus.
Premier John Horgan pulled off the winner’s trifecta: skilled, empathic, and lucky. Not every leader is so fortunate.