Could fear caused by COVID-19 affect voting behaviour?

How will the pandemic change political messaging and voter intention? Elias Papaioannou, Professor of Economics at London Business School and Academic Director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development was joined in conversation with Ruben Durante, ICREA Research Professor at UPF, Affiliated Professor of the Barcelona GSE, research affiliate of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), and Associate Editor of the Journal of the European Economic Association to discuss how COVID-19 might impact how voters support candidates across the political spectrum.

  • The fear that was stirred up by media coverage of the Ebola outbreak in 2014 was exploited by American politicians to weaponise the situation;  
  • Research shows that where people were more concerned they were less likely to vote for the incumbent candidate; 
  • Linking the fear over Ebola to issues where the Republican party were strong, immigration and terrorism, led to a rise in popularity for Republican candidates, at the expense of Democrats; 
  • Will links between COVID and immigration have a similar impact on voting intentions and support for politicians

The perceived risk of Ebola in America far outweighed the actual risk; the vacuum was filled by politicians who took advantage of the situation

Ruben Durante has written about ‘The Virus of Fear: The Political Impact of Ebola in the US’, and discusses with Elias Papaioannou how the reaction of voters to the Ebola outbreak might have lessons for how people might react politically to the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic. Even though the 2014 Ebola outbreak in the US was extremely small, with four cases and one death, there was a significant wave of fear and concern spread across the country by people in the media. Perception of the risk was off the charts compared with the reality. The timing meant it was just before a midterm election, meaning some candidates exploited the fear fuelled by the situation for political gain.  

Durante’s research had to disentangle the effect of fear from Ebola apart from the sense that the Obama administration’s policies and those of local politicians were not effective from protecting them from the outbreak. So Durante looked for the variable that correlated with the extent to which individuals were personally afraid of the risk of catching Ebola, with their previous political behaviour. The different Ebola cases were spread across several weeks, with different locations based on where people landed upon return from Africa and where they travelled, meaning there was concern in different cities from Ohio, to Dallas, Cleveland and New York. This fear was heightened in these specific locations and further fuelled by media coverage. Durante measured this fear by looking at online behaviour on Twitter and Google trends which illustrate where fear was greatest and a granular geographic basis, which typically coincided with where cases had been identified.  

Fear caused by the outbreak made voters less more to vote for Republican candidates, rather than Democrats. Durante explored the cause of this and looked at concerns relating to how policies implemented by incumbent candidates had led to the outbreak entering the US and politicians were blamed for the lack of accountability. However, using Gallup data, there was no clear relationship between the rating they gave President Obama and how popular he was and the levels of fear in any given location where fear was heightened; people in Texas did not become more oppositional to Obama after the first case, similarly, the same was the case in Ohio and New York. With responsibility for dealing with public health taken at a state level, Durante also looked at incumbents at the state level, which he saw were disproportionately impacted if they were incumbent Democrats, not incumbent Republicans.  

Interestingly, there was no relationship between fear of other viruses, not swine flu, SARS or H1N1 on political affiliation. Similarly, there was no impact on political disposition before the virus was present in the US, only once it arrived in the country, despite there being widespread awareness of the virus’ impact in West Africa. Americans only became scared, and changed political opinions once Ebola was perceived as a close threat.  

Politicians in the Republican party linked key issues, such as immigration and terrorism, to Ebola in their campaign messages to boost support

The investigation looked at three dimensions of campaign strategy: newsletters sent by elected officials, campaign Ads and tweets, and looked at how often they referenced Ebola. They found Republican candidates were more likely to use fear in their campaign messaging, linking Ebola to issues such as migration and terrorism. These links scared people about immigration and terrorism, topics where the Republican party are traditionally strong, so their candidates took advantage of the situation. Where people were located in closer proximity to cases, immigration attitudes became more conservative because candidates linked the Ebola crisis to immigration policy. While the link between Ebola and immigration was inaccurate, it was plausible, which meant it could be used as a vehicle for candidates to change people’s views to their advantage. Once the election was over, Ebola disappeared from the agenda, suggesting it was not linked to immigration and terrorism policies.  

This messaging also meant that President Obama did not get credit for his handling of the crisis, even though the medical profession acknowledged his handling of the issue was strong. Moreover, the alleged policy mismanagements that Republicans accused Obama of which allowed the cases of Ebola in the US to spread to four incidents, are currently giving greater freedom to policymakers during the COVID-19 pandemic.  

The virus has been used to amplify existing issues and these themes will likely re-emerge in future political campaigns

There have already been instances where similar approaches from politicians can be seen during the coronavirus pandemic and linkages to immigration or global disputes. Pre-existing rivalries have been amplified, such as blame being assigned to China and people of Chinese ethnicity within the United States, but also where this wasn’t the case previously. For example, Southern Italians did not want visitors from the North, other Europeans did not want Italians and Americans did not want Europeans.  Further to this, the fear of the other and assigning blame to foreign actors have been used as an attempt to shift blame away from politicians and their policies, whether it be during a political campaign or not.  

While Durante has studied this through the lens of electoral impact, he feels it could also have a dangerous impact on issues such as hate crime and discrimination. There may well be parallels with perceptions about how the European Union has performed through the situation and provoke a discussion about nationalism versus a unified approach. There is also the likelihood that President Trump will use the connection to China and assign blame there to deflect criticism of how he has performed during the pandemic.   

Elias Papaioannou’s conversation with Ruben Durante is part of the Wheeler Institute’s COVID-19 series – bringing together the expertise and experience of our extended community to understand, illuminate and offer solutions to the challenges created by COVID-19. Our differentiating factor is the role of business in addressing these challenges, with a focus on the implications and actions for those in developing countries.   

If you’re interested in following the Wheeler Institute COVID-19 series, check out our previous episode below.

Elias Papaioannou is academic director of the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development and professor of economics at London Business School, focusing on international finance, political economy, applied econometrics and growth and development. 

Ruben Durante is ICREA Research Professor at UPF, Affiliated Professor of the Barcelona GSE, research affiliate of the Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR), and Associate Editor of the Journal of the European Economic Association.. 

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