Ebola and the politics of fear

From Johnson's 'Daisy Girl' ad to Reagan's Soviet bear, politicians have been trying to scare voters to the polls for decades. Now, Ebola is handing candidates an arresting talking point.

Rhetoric aimed at frightening voters is a time-honored technique. President Johnson had his “Daisy Girl” nuclear ad. President Reagan had a “bear in the woods,” a symbol of the Soviet Union.  The second President Bush used wolves as a post-9/11 metaphor for lurking terrorists. 

This campaign season, it’s the arrival of Ebola in the United States that has ramped up fear, handing politicians an arresting new talking point. Republicans accuse the Obama administration of incompetence. Democrats say GOP budget-cutting has hampered the government response. In one of the few TV ads focused on Ebola, the liberal Agenda Project uses graphic images from West Africa, interspersed with Republican politicians saying “cut.”

On Wednesday, the group released a new version, adapted for the Iowa Senate race, going after cuts – or "castration," as Republican Joni Ernst said in her own break-out ad.

To many Americans, Ebola represents a more present threat than the rise overseas of the militant Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL. Or as one New Orleans mom put it in a focus group Monday night, “Ebola is here, ISIS is there.”

But two weeks before Election Day, it’s impossible to draw a straight line between Ebola and votes.

“It’s not a voting issue,” says Neil Newhouse, a GOP pollster and co-director of the bipartisan “Walmart moms” focus group project.

But that doesn’t mean the Ebola situation is not important in informing voter attitudes. “It feeds into the anxiousness, the concerns people have,” Mr. Newhouse says. “It feeds into the ‘right direction, wrong track’” – a measure of how voters see the state of the nation – “and then competence of government. It’s part of the environment.”

Margie Omero, the Democratic pollster on the “Walmart Moms” project, sees the anxiety over Ebola as part of a larger trend this election season – a rising focus on security threats.

“It’s tied to something we’ve heard in all four [focus] groups – concerns about crime and violence, something that we didn’t hear in 2012 or 2010,” Ms. Omero says.

Ask these women ­– Walmart shoppers with children at home – what their top voting issues are, and they are most likely to say the economy, jobs, and education.  But the fear in their voices is palpable when they bring up the disease.

“That Ebola is scary – it’s a state away,” says Tara, one of the women in the New Orleans focus group, which reporters viewed from Washington via video-link. (The women were identified only by first name.)

“It’s bad enough that I’m thinking of home-schooling,” says Tonya, another woman in the group.

These women fit perfectly the analysis by New York Times columnist David Brooks, whose piece Monday described scenarios of overreaction to Ebola throughout the country – and then offered an explanation.

“Fear isn’t only a function of risk; it’s a function of isolation,” he writes. “We live in a society almost perfectly suited for contagions of hysteria and overreaction.”

One reason for this is our “segmented society” – and the alienation that can create for many people who aren’t from the leadership class.  “They don’t know people in authority,” Mr. Brooks writes.

That includes politicians in Washington. And for the Walmart moms, that means a belief that members of Congress have no concept of their lives and struggles. It also means a lack of trust. Reassurances from Washington about safety from Ebola don’t mean much.

So how does all this fear and mistrust play into the midterm elections? These women say they intend to turn out, but their votes are still up for grabs. In another Walmart moms focus group held earlier Monday evening in Charlotte, N.C., some said they would decide “closer to the election.” One said she would do her research by “Googling the night before.”

That matters, because by Nov. 4, Ebola may have faded from the headlines. In fact, without major new developments this week, it already is fading. Another issue may be out front by Election Day.  

But for now, Ebola has given candidates a new talking point. Take former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown (R), now of New Hampshire, who’s trying to unseat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D). They are locked in a close race.

“Scott Brown’s overall strategy the last few months has been to rip it from the headlines, whether it’s the border crisis during the summer, or ISIS, or Ebola now,” says Dante Scala, a political scientist from the University of New Hampshire in Durham. “Rip the headline, tie it to a failure by President Obama, then tie Senator Shaheen to him.”

Brown has succeeded in moving Shaheen off her rejection of a travel ban to the US from West Africa. Now, like a lot of Democrats, Shaheen seems more open to the idea. The Obama administration and most public health experts oppose such a ban.

Most of the Ebola discussion so far in the campaign has come in debates, interviews, and other forms of discourse, not ads. A study by the Wesleyan Media Project, which analyzes campaign ads, finds that through Oct. 9, the predominant emotional appeal in campaign ads has been anger, with a mean percentage of 64 percent of ads for the House and Senate. Next is enthusiasm, at 42 percent, followed by fear at 17 percent. The others are sadness (16 percent), pride (9 percent), and humor (4 percent).

“I think it’s probably typical to see more anger than fear,” says Travis Ridout, co-director of the Wesleyan Media Project. “A lot of times, campaigns are fought on what has been done. The president failed at this, Obamacare is not working. And when we’re talking about things that have happened in the past, we’re really talking about things that people are angry about.”

Fear, he says, is a more “forward looking” emotion – as in, “boy, things are uncertain about the future, we’ve got a lot of anxiety about what could happen.”

As much as voters say they dislike “negative ads” – whether the ads are peddling anger or fear or other forms of negativity – political strategists swear by them as turnout tools.  There’s academic evidence that shows negative advertising can mobilize voters, as well as evidence that emotion is key, says Ken Goldstein, an expert on campaign advertising and a political scientist at the University of San Francisco.

“People are more likely to take into account fear than hope in casting a ballot,” says Mr. Goldstein.

Still, playing on voters’ emotions can carry risk. The Agenda Project’s ad, which shows sensational images of Ebola-stricken West Africa, could just as easily backfire on Democrats as help them. So far, the ad has only aired in Iowa, but the group may adapt it for use in North Carolina, South Dakota, and Kansas, all of which have close Senate races, like Iowa.

The “Republican Cuts Kill” ad, which includes disturbing images, includes short clips of GOP lawmakers saying the word “cut,” blaming them for reducing funding to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But with a Democrat in the White House, the ad may only reinforce President Obama’s ownership of the Ebola situation.

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