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COVID, Leadership, and Missouri Schools

By: Dr. Evan Rhinesmith, Associate Director of SLU Poll

Between June 23 and July 1, 2020, we worked with YouGov to interview 900 likely voters from the state of Missouri. Along with questions on preferred presidential and governor candidates, we asked about the response to the COVID-19 pandemic and how it has affected their lives. We found that Missourians are fairly split when it comes to National and State officials’ responses, but are generally pleased with how their local officials have responded. Our results show a strong partisan divide with strong disapproval from Democrats towards Republican leadership. We also find that voters, especially those with children, approve of how their local schools have handled the pandemic. Looking toward the coming school year, we find that voters favor of face-to-face instruction, a result likely due to home learning and its impacts on day-to-day life.

Missouri Voters

As part of the first SLU/YouGov Poll, Missourians were asked a variety of questions pertaining to the national, state, and local responses to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) pandemic. Likely voters in Missouri expressed disapproval of how President Trump has handled the pandemic, while there was more ambiguity regarding Governor Parson’s approach. Conversely, Missourians were generally pleased with how their local government officials (i.e. mayors, county executives, etc.) have done in responding to the health crisis, with 64% saying they approve. These outcomes for Parson and Trump are heavily influenced by voters’ party identification.

Party Line Differences?

While just under half of respondents approved of the President and Governor’s responses to COVID-19, there is a clear party line division. Among likely Missouri voters who identify as Democrat, 95% disapprove of how President Trump has handled the pandemic with 87% saying they “Strongly Disapprove”. These results are nearly reversed when examining results for Republican voters. Ninety-one percent of Republicans expressed approval of the President's handling of the pandemic.

While most Independents in Missouri said they would likely vote for President Trump in the Fall, 61% of Independents said they disapprove of how he has handled the pandemic. Although President Trump holds a 7 point lead over former Vice President Joe Biden, if Independent voters’ disapproval of the pandemic bleeds over into the election, the President’s lead could continue to shrink.

Local Support

Among those surveyed for the poll, there was high support for local officials handling the pandemic. Roughly two-thirds (64%) said they approve of how their local government leaders have handled the pandemic, 27% disapprove of their local response, while only 10% were undecided.

Support for local government was not party specific, though a higher percentage of Democratic voters expressed disapproval than did their Republican counterparts (37% vs. 17%). These results also were similar across urban and rural parts of the state.

Voter education level?

We also examined whether there was a relationship between voters’ education level and perceptions of our leaders’ handling of the COVID pandemic. We find that Missourians with higher levels of education typically disapprove (and even strongly disapprove) of how President Trump has handled the pandemic. Among voters with a Bachelor’s degree or higher, 61% strongly disapprove of the president’s handling of COVID. Conversely, among voters with a high school degree or less, 64% Approve or Strongly Approve of how the president has handled the pandemic.

Governor Parson’s handling of the pandemic elicits similar approval patterns (but to a lesser degree) from Missourians. While Governor Parson prompts fewer responses of strong approval or disapprovals than does President Trump. Governor Parson also received more positive responses from Missourians with lower levels of education.
With regard to the performance of local government officials to COVID-19, as shown above, Missourians generally approve. While support was highest among respondents with the highest education levels, support was strong (greater than 60%) in each of the three groups. More Missourians were unsure of their government's approach than the president or governor.

COVID-19 and Schools

As a result of the COVID pandemic, schools across the country shifted to home learning. This decision not only impacted students and teachers, but heavily impacted the home and work lives of families across Missouri. Our poll finds that Missourians approve of the approach school leaders took towards the pandemic. Among our sample of voters, 65% approve of how their school local school district handled the pandemic, 14% disapprove, and 21% were undecided. Approval of local school leaders and districts’ handling of the pandemic was consistent across party lines, as well as voters of all ages. Approval for school leaders was more pronounced among residents in rural Missouri, with 28% strongly approving.

Voters with school-age children expressed their approval of schools’ handling of the pandemic. Seventy-two percent of the subsample who said they have school-age children approve of how their school is handling the pandemic thus far.

We also asked whether voters approve of how school leaders handled the pandemic, we asked whether voters thought schools should resume face-to-face instruction in the fall. Overall, 59% of Missourians interviewed believe school should be in-person. Among those voters with school-age children, 63% said they agree with having in-person school this fall.

Much like overall approval of how government leaders have handled the pandemic, going back to school is clearly a partisan issue. Among respondents identified as Republicans, 79% agree with going back to in-person learning in the fall. Conversely, only 38% of Democrats agree with the statement. There was little difference in opinion for urban and rural families on whether school should be face-to-face in the fall.

We also asked how respondents would “grade” their schools on a range from Poor to Excellent. Among respondents who rated their schools as Good or Excellent, 69% said they agree schools should re-open in the fall. Among respondents who rated their school as Fair or Poor, 57% said they agree schools should re-open this fall.

Conclusions & Lessons

In our poll of likely Missouri voters, we learned party alignment is strongly related to views on how government officials have responded to the COVID pandemic. Republican voters generally approve of how President Trump and Governor Parson have handled the crisis. However, Democrats not only disapprove but were more likely to state they “Strongly Disapprove”. With regard to local officials and school leaders, there were no clear connections to political party. We found that Missourians generally approve of how their local officials and school leaders have handled the pandemic, regardless of party affiliation.

Voters with school-age children were especially supportive of how school leaders have approached COVID. One of the most notable disruptions resulting from COVID has been the need for home learning. We found that a majority (59%) of Missourians have expressed a desire to return to some form of normal when it comes to school. The support was strongest among Republican voters (79%) and among those who rated their local schools as good or excellent (69%).

Overall, these party differences are not too surprising. What remains to be seen is how voters will respond to decisions from leaders going forward as the COVID crisis continues across Missouri and the rest of the county.

Demographic and Party Cross-Tabs