How Terrorism and Ebola Influenced Midterm Voters

How Terrorism and Ebola Influenced Midterm Voters

By David Paul Kuhn - November 6, 2014

Joni Ernst had just won one of the nation’s most significant Senate contests. In her victory speech, the Iowa Republican said what newcomers say. She scolded Washington politicians who “ignore problems hoping they will go away.” But the first problem she mentioned was not the economy. Nor was it health care. Instead, she said that “ISIS isn’t just going to go away.”   

That’s what was different about the 2014 midterms. Writ large, this electorate was consumed by the economy, unhappy with the status quo, and worried about the direction of their nation. So were Americans in 2012, 2010 and 2008.  

By contrast, this year voters were also as anxious about terrorism as voters were a decade ago. This 2004 parallel is as recent as it is remarkable. After all, the Bush-Kerry race took place in the shadow of the 9/11 attacks, amid color-coded terror alerts, and a barrage of news about imminent threats to the homeland. Yet in 2014, as in 2004, precisely 71 percent of voters said they were worried about terrorism. And strikingly, slightly more voters said they were “very worried” on Tuesday than 10 years earlier.    

Perhaps August 19 was the turning point. That day, ISIS released the videotaped execution of James Foley. In the 33 national polls conducted before the video’s release, Americans favored electing a Democratic Congress by an average of 1.6 percentage points. In the 33 polls since, the public favored electing a Republican Congress by an average of 2.4 percentage points. This nearly four-point rightward shift is highly significant in statistical terms. It is also unsurprising. 

News about public safety was omnipresent in recent months, and to a degree unseen since the 2004 campaign. In early September, after another videotaped beheading of an American saturated the media, a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll found that 94 percent of the public had heard about the two murders -- a higher rate than 22 other news events tracked over the past half-decade.  

In some sense, economic angst, like frustration with Washington, has become normative in American life. By comparison, as recently as the summer, the share of the public who told pollsters they were primarily worried about terrorism was near nil. As Election Day neared, that share reached about a fifth of the population. Meanwhile, there was a steady stream of news about Americans infected with Ebola.   

We have long known that congressional races are shaped by the national mood. Public safety issues, from war to crime, have also plagued Democrats since the days of Vietnam and urban upheaval. The Iraq War’s unpopularity briefly offset Democrats’ weakness on military politics. But the worst of that war has long passed (from an American perspective).  

Today, the GOP enjoys an advantage on national security issues unseen since the 9/11 era. In September, a New York Times/CBS poll found that Americans trust Republicans more than Democrats to deal with terrorism by a margin of 52 to 31 percent -- the largest gap since 2003. 

Thus as Election Day neared, Democrats found themselves once more in a defensive crouch on matters concerning, well, defense. Political scientists call this phenomenon “issue ownership.” Democrats tend to benefit from issues involving civil rights or civil liberties. Republicans tend to benefit from issues involving civil order. Research also indicates that a state of heightened alarm moves voters mildly rightward. Events and leaders can influence these shifts. But, at least in part, voters’ views also appear ingrained.  

People tend to see “warmth” in left-leaning politicians and “strength” in right-leaning politicians. Facial features can even betray party affiliation. This is why American politics is often easily understood through the conventional lens of the mommy-daddy political divide.   

In other words, these perceptions are already baked into voters’ preferences. That helps explain why partisanship proved a more significant factor than the 9/11 attacks in the 2004 campaign. Still, three years after 9/11, moderate voters who were not worried about “another major terrorist attack” favored John Kerry over George W. Bush by 15 percentage points. Moderate voters who were worried about an attack favored Kerry by only four points. A decade later, these findings shed some light on how current events helped Republicans. 

In a nation of 319 million people, however, only six Americans have actually contracted Ebola. Still, the virus came to the fore of this campaign in the final weeks. Bloomberg News reported that political ads about Ebola soared in the most competitive Senate races. One recent political memorandum claimed, “Ebola has replaced ISIS as a worry.” In exit polling, about six in 10 Americans said they were “closely” following news about Ebola. And Republicans won a slim majority of this bloc.  

Anxiety about terrorism, however, almost surely had a greater impact on the midterm races than Ebola. In a gauge of passion more than priority, a recent CNN/ORC poll asked Americans to name issues that were “extremely important” to their vote. The most popular answers, at equal rates, were the economy and terrorism. Ebola ranked about 10 percentage points behind that tier, alongside concern about immigration and the budget deficit. A recent Politico poll reported that more than eight in 10 Americans rated ISIS a “serious” threat “to our homeland.”  

On Tuesday, nearly six in 10 voters who were “worried” about another terrorist attack supported Republicans. A decade earlier, Bush won a slim majority of the voters who were worried about terrorism but also half of voters who were not. On Tuesday, 28 percent of voters said they were not worried about an attack -- about seven in 10 of them voted for Democrats.  

Does this mean even anxiety has become more partisan? Probably not since 2004. Instead, a weak economy traditionally hurts whatever party is in power. And issues involving public safety traditionally hurt Democrats. Thus Democrats were weighed down not only by the public’s sense that they have more control over the events of the day, but also the nature of those events. 

The University of Syracuse’s Shana Kushner Gadarian, who is currently completing a book on anxiety and politics, has demonstrated that news with frightening imagery slightly increases support for hawkish policies.  

It may also be that actual threats, as well as continuous news about terrorism and epidemics, heighten the engagement of voters already predisposed to vote conservative. Gadarian has found that “individuals already concerned about future terrorism were especially supportive of hawkish policy” after viewing “emotionally powerful images of terrorism.” 

Amid these images, Democrats might have paid a smaller political price if they did not control the White House. In the exit polling, a slim majority of voters disapproved of the “government’s response to the Ebola virus.” Among them, seven in 10 voted for Republicans.  

Pew Research Center polling shows that in 2007, with a Republican in the White House, concern about a drug-resistant staph infection was evenly distributed between partisans. By comparison, polls show that the more conservative voters are, the more concerned they are about Ebola today (with women expressing more concern than men on the left and the right).  

In 2004, 22 percent of voters said they were “very worried” about terrorism. John Kerry won a majority of their support. Today, 28 percent had this same fear. And almost two-thirds of them backed GOP candidates. The distinction may be, in part, a Democratic White House. But that distinction also likely stems from intrinsic differences between liberals and conservatives, and what we expect from them. 

In a new study led by researchers at Virginia Tech, participants were shown disturbing images such as a mutilated body. Using neuroimaging, the study found that conservatives were more repulsed by the pictures than liberals. In a small study out of Cornell University, researchers reported that simply exposing student volunteers to hand-sanitizer or a sign reminding them to wash their hands “shifted participants’ attitudes toward the conservative end of the political spectrum.” There is consistent evidence that conservatives are generally more prone than liberals to sensations of disgust. This reaction may relate to an overall, and perhaps inherent, desire for order. And this desire is hardly limited to U.S. party politics.

In Israel, for example, the political right’s share of the vote increased for localities that were within range of rocket fire, according to a study by Anna Getmansky and Thomas Zeitzoff, which affirmed earlier research. Zeitzoff notes that their findings also demonstrate that left-wing incumbent parties are “punished for increases in terrorism” to a degree unseen in right-wing incumbent parties. 

“There’s this asymmetrical blame,” Zeitzoff said, who currently teaches at American University. “In times of high anxiety and threats, people tend to favor more politically conservative policies.”

David Paul Kuhn is a writer who lives in New York City. His novel, “What Makes It Worthy,” will be published in February 2015.

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