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President Donald Trump, left, accompanied by Gov. Bill Lee, R-Tenn., walks in the Cross Hall to speak about protecting seniors, in the East Room of the White House, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

NASHVILLE — As coronavirus cases, hospitalizations and deaths continue rising in their states, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp are seeing substantial drops in how constituents view their handling of the pandemic.

That's one of the findings in a new 44-state survey conducted by researchers at Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern and Rutgers universities under their COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public's Policy Preferences Across States program.

More than 19,000 adults nationwide were surveyed online from July 10-26. The poll found President Donald Trump had a 32% positive approval rating for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, down from 42% in late April.

The survey found governors have better ratings, for the most part.

The poll found the average governor had an approval rating of 64% positive for handling of the pandemic in late April, falling to 51% in late July as cases and deaths have mounted. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, who instituted a statewide mask mandate in mid-July, mirrored the national average of a 13 percentage point drop, from 60% positive in late April to 47% positive in late July.

The governors of Tennessee and Georgia, who have not instituted statewide mask mandates, have seen steeper drops in approval ratings for their handling of the pandemic.

Results for Tennessee show approval of Lee's handling of the COVID-19 crisis fell from 62% in late April to 44% this month with a margin of error of plus or minus 6 percentage points.

It's been a steady decline for Lee, with similar surveys in early May and late May showing approval first falling to 51% to 50% before dropping to 46% in late June.

Spokespersons for Lee, who in April issued a stay-at-home order that was lifted several weeks later, did not respond to Times Free Press inquiries about the survey's findings.

The governor has come under increasing pressure to sign an executive order mandating statewide mask usage but has resisted doing so. Instead, Lee signed an order empowering the state's 95 county mayors to call the shots on mandatory mask requirements and has launched what he has said is a multimillion advertising campaign to encourage Tennesseans to wear masks.

Georgians' positive views of Kemp, who is battling cities' efforts to require residents to wear masks, fell from 53% in late April to 36% in the latest survey, which has a 7 percentage point margin of error for Georgia.

Spokespersons for the governor did not immediately respond to a Times Free Press email request for comment.

In their analysis, the researchers stated that "across much of the South we see a tight coupling between approval of the president's handling of the pandemic and approval of the governor's performance during the pandemic."

The exceptions where governors retain "notably higher support for their management of the pandemic" than Trump by 10 percentage points or more are either Republican-leaning or "purple" states with Democratic governors such as North Carolina, Virginia, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Another is Maryland, where a Republican governor leads a Democratic-leaning state.

Democratic governors in three states — North Carolina, Kentucky and Louisiana — have also seen declining ratings, though researchers note they started from higher baselines than their Republican counterparts in the region and so remain more popular than the president.

In Louisiana, for instance, Gov. John Edwards has seen his approval rating on COVID-19 fall from 67% in April to 50% in the late July survey, as cases there have surged.

On the other hand, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican, led the nation in approval from his Democratic majority state. Seventy-six percent of respondents said they approved of how he's handling the virus. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, both Democrats, share the No. 2 spot in terms of approval with 71% support.

The Hill newspaper quoted Matthew Baum, a study co-author and the Marvin Kalb professor of global communications at Harvard University's Kennedy School, saying that "the governors who are doing really well are the ones that have acted most proactively."

The lowest approval rating for any governor was in Hawaii, where 20% of those surveyed approved of how Democratic Gov. David Ige is handling the pandemic, down from 31% in late April.

Contact Andy Sher at asher@timesfreepress.com or 615-255-0550. Follow on Twitter @AndySher1.

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