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Nothing to Fear but Fearmongering Itself

illustration by Robert Neubecker
Illustration by Robert Neubecker

It might seem difficult to recall now, as we endure the era of COVID-19 and other crises, that during the 2014 midterm elections another virus played a pivotal role in national politics. 

Ebola had made its way to the U.S. via an infected Liberian man who had traveled to Texas, something reported and amplified with gusto by the news media. Though Ebola posed a small threat to the U.S.—one that would ultimately result in only four stateside cases—the virus achieved heavy rotation in the 24/7 news cycle, exciting the public and enticing some political candidates to transmogrify its weak presence into a strong threat in the U.S.  

Last year, that scenario drew the attention of a scientist at Johns Hopkins.  

What impact, wondered Filipe Campante, the Bloomberg Distinguished Associate Professor of International Economics at the Krieger School and at SAIS, did the stoking of emotions during Ebola’s brief history in the U.S. have on the elections? 

Campante, a political economist, and two co-authors offered an answer in a working paper published in March called “The Virus of Fear: The Political Impact of Ebola in the U.S.” The trio explored how Republican politicians tied a fear of Ebola to other anxieties of the electorate, such as immigration and terrorism, and accused Democrats, particularly President Barack Obama, of responding weakly to the virus. 

The gambit seems to have worked: An increase of one standard deviation in voter concern about Ebola, the researchers found, was enough to reduce votes for as many as 40 Democrats running for Congressional seats, including 15 won by Republicans.  

“It’s clear, anecdotally, that politicians were using Ebola to create fear,” says Campante, a native of Rio de Janeiro who came to Johns Hopkins from Harvard in 2018. “The challenge for us was to find data that supported that hypothesis. In the past, economists have developed evidence in the lab showing the strong role emotions can play in voting behavior, such as making voters more conservative. We decided to pick through survey and voter data to measure the effects Ebola had on the actual election and to learn whether Republicans had used it strategically in their campaigns.” 

Campante and partners say that Ebola and the 2014 elections were good targets for scientific inquiry. They represented a “pure fear shock”—one relatively untainted by other factors, such as an economic downturn—that GOP candidates used to tap into voter anxiety. “Some candidates tied that fear to other perceived threats from outside, like immigrants.”

photo of Filipe Campante

Fear works as a campaign strategy when it is tied to something that is meaningful to voters.”

—Filipe Campante

Though published, the paper is still being honed for a second publication, with the three researchers retesting their data and conclusions, as well as investigating whether Democrats used Ebola to call for stronger national health policies. 

So, is there any connection, politically speaking, to make between Ebola and COVID-19, during yet another election year? 

“There are too many other variables and effects—the economy, cultural issues—with COVID-19 that we’d have to sort out,” Campante says. “But that doesn’t mean pols aren’t putting some fearmongering to work now.”