NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - Mr Justin Penn, a Pittsburgh voter who calls himself politically independent, favoured Mr Joe Biden in a matchup with US President Donald Trump until recently. But the president's performance during the coronavirus outbreak has Mr Penn reconsidering.
"I think he's handled it pretty well," he said of the president, whose daily White House appearances Mr Penn catches on Facebook after returning from his job as a bank security guard. "I think he's tried to keep people calm," he said. "I know some people don't think he's taking it seriously, but I think he's doing the best with the information he had."
Although Mr Penn, 40, said he did not vote for Mr Trump, his opinion of the president has improved recently and he very well might back him for a second term.
Across the country, the coronavirus has sickened more than 150,000 people, cost millions their jobs and tanked the stock market. Yet the president's approval ratings are as high as they have ever been, despite what most agree to be his slow performance dealing with the crisis, as well as his record of falsehoods about the virus, his propensity to push ideas and treatments that contradict expert advice, and his habit of lashing out at governors on the front lines.
While public perceptions are fluid in a crisis, a notable twist in polling at this point is that independents are driving Mr Trump's bump in approval, and some increased Democratic support is a factor as well.
Gallup called that "highly unusual for Trump" in reporting its latest survey, which was released last week and showed Mr Trump's approval rating at 49 per cent, equal to the best of his presidency.
While Republicans' views of Mr Trump were flat - a sign they had already topped out - approval by independents rose by 8 percentage points from early March, while Democratic approval was up by 6 percentage points.
Polling experts said that it was normal for the country to rally around a president during a national crisis, and that Mr Trump's dominance of the airwaves alone was enough to sway a slice of voters who don't normally tune in to politics.
"There are people who haven't even heard Trump that much, while the rest of us have been obsessed," said Mr Matt Grossmann, director of the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research at Michigan State University. "Those people are paying attention and seeing Trump a lot."
Every modern president has seen their approval surge after significant national crises, although those bumps have diminished in size in recent administrations, as the country's politics became more polarised.
President Barack Obama gained just 7 points after US forces killed Osama bin Laden in 2011. The rally-round-the-flag effect is also often fleeting. President Jimmy Carter's approval nearly doubled in 1979 when Iran seized American hostages, but as the crisis dragged on for more than a year, Mr Carter's approval plummeted and he lost re-election.
Interviews with about two dozen independent and Democratic voters, most of whom said they "somewhat disapproved" of Mr Trump in a poll last year by The New York Times and Siena College, showed that some now expressed more positive views of him. Their numbers were small, consistent with what pollsters say is by historical standards a modest bump in approval for a commander-in-chief during an emergency.
Ms Kathleen Mathien, an independent in Maricopa County, Arizona, said that she did not vote for Mr Trump, but that her opinion of him had risen during his White House appearances to talk about the virus.
"He's not one to be bullied," she said, adding that she also saw flashes of empathy, a trait many critics find lacking in Mr Trump.
Ms Mathien, 64, a designer of cabinetry, explained that she doesn't closely follow politics and finds it difficult to get a true understanding of candidates beyond the "smoke and mirrors" they project. "It's so hard sometimes to vote if you don't know who the real person is," she said. Undecided as of now, she said Mr Trump has a chance to win her vote.
Last week, a Monmouth University poll showed the president's overall approval at 46 per cent, an improvement driven by higher Democratic support.
Mr Patrick Murray, director of the university's Polling Institute, called the shift by some Democrats "microscopic in polling terms." "Any other president and we would expect those job ratings to swing by more than 10 points because of the situation," Mr Murray said.
Mr Trump's ratings lag far behind many of the nation's governors, who have seen a sharp increase in their approval ratings as they rush to contain the virus. Unlike Mr Trump's, their approval ratings do not show the same level of partisan divide.
More than 7 in 10 voters in states with a significant number of coronavirus cases gave their governor a positive review in the Monmouth survey. Even in states with the fewest reported cases, 61 per cent of Americans said their governor was doing a good job.
Still, small shifts in Mr Trump's approval could make a difference in a close-fought general election. A Washington Post/ABC poll this past weekend showed Mr Trump improving on a 7-point deficit against Mr Biden a month ago to reach a near tie with the former vice-president, 49 per cent to 47 per cent.
"President Trump has broken through the narrow range of 42 to 46 per cent approval where he's been for the last two years and indeed for much of his presidency," said Mr Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "It's an open question whether those people who are changing now would actually vote in a different way in November. Some of the independents may. I doubt that many of the Democrats will."
Ms Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster, said, "I would be a little careful in whether it translates into something permanent," adding, "The challenge for Trump is that he's inconsistent."
Mr Robert Taylor, 31, a computer programmer in York County, Pennsylvania, wants Senator Bernie Sanders to be the Democratic nominee and is unsure if he will vote for Mr Biden in a contest against the president.
"I'm not one of those people who hate Trump and thinks everything he's done is wrong," he said. He could vote for Mr Trump if the president successfully leads the country through the coronavirus crisis, Mr Taylor said. "We'll see how he handles everything from here on out."
There are some Democrats and independents who were initially inclined to give the president the benefit of the doubt over the coronavirus, but have since concluded that he is failing.
"In the beginning, when he went on TV he sounded very presidential, sounded like he wanted to get in front of this," said Mr Francis Newberg of Delaware County, Pennsylvania. "I told my wife, 'Listen to this guy, he sounds real.'"
But Mr Newberg's opinion swiftly went downhill as he watched the president attack Democratic governors and say that "everything is fine."
"It's not fine," said Mr Newberg, who lives with his wife outside Philadelphia in a community for residents over 62. Its three restaurants have closed and staff members now deliver three days of groceries at a time to residents.
"We had our first case of coronavirus diagnosed in our community," said Mr Newberg, who retired from a phone company. "There's 1,800 of us. If it breaks out in here, there's going to be a lot of boxes outside."