Republicans fared spectacularly well in the 2014 mid-term elections, re-capturing the Senate while also making gains in state legislatures. While analysts generally attributed this success to the older, more conservative make-up of the electorate, it turns out the GOP had a secret weapon going for it: the Ebola virus.
Newly published research finds fear of the infectious disease, which was widely in the news in the month before the election, increased voters' intention to vote Republican. This effect was primarily found in red states, which means the outbreak effectively turned them a deeper shade of red.
"Disease outbreaks may influence voter behavior in two psychologically distinct ways," writes a research team led by University of British Columbia psychologist Alec Beall: "Increased inclination to vote for politically conservative candidates, and increased inclination to conform to popular opinion."
An outbreak of some new infectious disease—if hyped in the media, and thus perceived as a threat—would likely help Donald Trump.
In the journal Psychological Science, Beall and his colleagues present evidence for these trends in the form of three studies. They begin by noting that the first case of Ebola in the United States was announced on September 30, 2014—just over a month before the November election. Three additional cases were announced in October, leading to massive news coverage that produced levels of fear disproportionate to the actual risk.
"One mid-October poll showed that 65 percent of Americans feared a widespread Ebola epidemic," the researchers note. While this threat was never real, Google Trends data found that "on one day during mid-October, Americans searched for 'Ebola' even more than they searched for 'porn'."
Their first study focused on nationwide polling results measuring support for candidates to the House of Representatives. "During September, there was a temporal trend towards support for Democratic candidates, but this pattern was reversed during October (when Ebola was dominating the news)," Beall and his colleagues report.
The researchers then compared aggregated results of non-partisan polls with the level of Google searches for "Ebola."
"Seven-day time periods characterized by especially heavy volumes of Ebola-related Internet searchers were also characterized by especially substantial increases in U.S. voters' intentions to vote for Republican candidates for the House of Representatives," they write.
A second study, analyzing polls in the 34 states electing U.S. Senators, found the same pattern: "Higher Internet search volume for 'Ebola' was associated with greater intentions to vote for Republican candidates."
They noticed, however, that this dynamic was far more pronounced in states where the Republican candidate was already leading before the outbreak was in the news. This suggests that, while fear of infection moved some Americans rightward, it also inspired voters "to conform more closely to enduring local political norms."
A final study found similar results in Canada, where searches for Ebola "were also characterized by an increase in Canadians' support for the Conservative party."
While this study is the first to measure the impact of a disease outbreak on actual voter behavior, its results are consistent with previous research in political psychology. A number of studies have found that, "when people feel greater vulnerability to infectious diseases, they are more likely to express conservative political attitudes."
After all, the researchers write, conservative parties tend to support "traditionalist attitudes and xenophobic policies." The threat of disease leads many people to "respond especially aversively to people who are perceived to pose an infection risk, such as immigrants from unfamiliar countries."
While it can't be said for certain that the same dynamic will play out in future elections, the results at least tentatively suggest that an outbreak of some new infectious disease—if hyped in the media, and thus perceived as a threat—would likely help Donald Trump, at least in areas where he's already reasonably popular.*
In the longer run, the dynamic could be good news for conservative candidates in general. Given that the GOP downplays the existence of climate change, and that climate change will likely lead to an increase in infectious diseases, the result could be a pernicious cycle in which fear rewards ignorance.
That kind of epidemic may be the most frightening of all.
Findings is a daily column by Pacific Standard staff writer Tom Jacobs, who scours the psychological-research journals to discover new insights into human behavior, ranging from the origins of our political beliefs to the cultivation of creativity.
*Update — March 15, 2016: This article has been updated to more accurately reflect the implications of the study's results.