The Effects of COVID-19 on External Political Efficacy

Published date01 January 2022
Date01 January 2022
Subject MatterArticles
2022, Vol. 50(1) 97 –107
American Politics Research
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211041322
External political efficacy is the feeling that the political
process is responsive to an individual’s participation. It is
reflected in whether “public officials care about what people
like me think.” Efficacy can be affected by the social and
political environment, such as one’s party winning a recent
election, policy offerings, or a localized disaster (Atkeson &
Maestas, 2012; Bowler & Donovan, 2002; Wolak, 2018).
In this paper, we address two gaps in the literature. First,
while extant analyses have made important contributions to
our understanding of efficacy, we still know very little about
how public health crises affect individuals’ external effi-
cacy. It is well known that global health emergencies can
influence various political attitudes, such as trust in govern-
ment (Albertson & Gadarian, 2015; Bol et al., 2021; Schraff,
2020). Curiously, though, the impact of these types of events
on political efficacy has not received any attention in the
literature. This is particularly salient, as the World Health
Organization (WHO) has identified five “Public Health
Emergenc[ies] of International Concern” in the past decade
alone (Wilder-Smith & Osman, 2020). This demonstrates
that these types of crises represent prominent features of the
contemporary political landscape, and as we suggest here,
they likely have the ability to affect political attitudes, includ-
ing efficacy.
Second (and relatedly), this paper contributes to the
broader literature on disaster responses. Existing work on the
connections between national disaster response and efficacy
has thus far focused exclusively on the context of localized
extreme-weather events. Atkeson and Maestas (2012), for
instance, explore the impact of Hurricane Katrina on politi-
cal efficacy in the United States. While their analysis demon-
strates that people’s evaluations of governmental disaster
response can influence individuals’ efficacy, it is not clear
that this relationship applies to other types of issues and cri-
sis contexts. Using the United States as our case study, we
investigate the effects of disaster management on political
efficacy in the context of the 2020 COVID public health
In this research, we focus on external efficacy.1
Theoretically, we expect that individuals with more posi-
tive (negative) evaluations of the federal COVID response
will have higher (lower) levels of external political effi-
cacy. Using original survey data, collected in April 2020,
we find that respondents who view the government’s han-
dling of COVID more positively report higher levels of
external efficacy, providing support for our theoretical
expectations. We also performed an experiment in February
1041322APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211041322American Politics ResearchMcBrayer et al.
1University of Idaho, Moscow, USA
Corresponding Author:
Markie Rae McBrayer, University of Idaho, 875 Perimeter Drive MS 3165,
Moscow, ID 83844, USA.
The Effects of COVID-19 on External
Political Efficacy
Markie Rae McBrayer1, Bert Baumgaertner1,
and Florian Justwan1
Significant scholarship examines the effects of disasters and disaster management on political behavior and attitudes. Yet, no
research has assessed how health crises might shape people’s levels of external efficacy, nor how disaster response affects
external efficacy beyond localized extreme-weather events. Using the United States as a case study, we seek to fill these
gaps in the literature by exploring how individuals’ external political efficacy is affected by assessments of the federal COVID
response. With an original collection of survey data from April 2020, we find that respondents who view the government’s
handling of COVID more positively report higher levels of external efficacy. In a secondary analysis, we performed an
experiment in February 2021 where people were given different narratives about government management of the pandemic
response. The experimental results strongly suggest that disaster management—in this case the handling of the pandemic—
shapes individuals’ efficacy.
political efficacy, disaster management, public health, COVID, external efficacy

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