S. Erdem Aytaç, a professor of political science in the Department of International Relations at Koç University in Istanbul, argues that anger can be a central ingredient in driving voter behavior. He wrote by email to say that an examination of American turnout over 40 years
found that while unemployed people participate in elections at lower rates than the employed in general, the difference between the two groups diminishes when unemployment is high around the election period.
Aytaç, who co-authored the 2018 paper “Beyond Opportunity Costs: Campaign Messages, Anger and Turnout among the Unemployed” with Eli Gavin Rau and Susan Stokes, political scientists at Yale and the University of Chicago, explained the reasons for the varying levels of turnout in his email:
When unemployment is widespread, the opposition draws attention to it in their campaigns and blames incumbents. The unemployed are exposed to messages that stress the government’s responsibility for the dire state of the economy. This, in turn, stokes anger among those hit hardest by the economic downturn.
Aytaç pointed to the crucial role of aggravated, even enraged, voters in elections:
Anger is a well-known mobilizing emotion, and therefore the angry unemployed are more prone to return to the polls.
While Trump is vulnerable to an aggrieved and angry electorate, there are other emotions at play with the potential to work to Trump’s advantage: panic and fear.
In March, Filipe R. Campante, a professor of public policy at Harvard, Emilio Depetris-Chauvin and Ruben Durante, professors of economics at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and Universitat Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona, published a study of the political consequences of an earlier public health scare, “The Virus of Fear: The Political Impact of Ebola in the U.S.”
The Ebola scare hit the United States one month before the 2014 midterm congressional elections. A total of 11 people were treated for Ebola in this country, according to the Centers for Disease Control; two died.
Campante and his colleagues found that:
Heightened concern about Ebola, as measured by online activity, led to a lower vote share for the Democrats in congressional and gubernatorial elections.
Republican candidates, the three authors wrote, “responded to the Ebola scare by mentioning the disease in connection with immigration and terrorism in newsletters and campaign ads,” and the strategy proved effective:
Survey evidence suggests that voters responded with increasingly conservative attitudes on immigration but not on other ideologically-charged issues.
In an email, Campante wrote me:
Quite clearly, the GOP is trying to run the same playbook now — “Chinese virus,” “Wuhan virus,” etc. What the Democrats would need to do to counteract that — again, from the pure psychological perspective — is to find a theme that resonates with voters and helps them.
As both parties and their candidates seek to turn the pandemic to their advantage, there are potential pitfalls for politicians and political parties that are attempting to court voters during a crisis.
Adam Seth Levine, a political scientist at Cornell and the author of the 2015 book “American Insecurity: Why Our Economic Fears Lead to Political Inaction,” wrote by email of the dangers of stressing hardship in an effort to mobilize those suffering the most: The suffering, he said, “are the ones who are demobilized by rhetoric that reminds them of their own resource constraints.”
There are unanticipated adverse consequences to certain strategies, Levine contended: “Appealing to material self-interest is self-undermining when it reminds people of what they don’t have. It persuades but also paralyzes” them by reducing “their willingness to spend scarce resources like money and time that are key ingredients of political activism.”
In “American Insecurity,” Levine makes the case that
on issues that reflect financial constraints that people are facing or worry that they could face in the future, there is an identifiable lack of large-scale political participation that (a) is politically consequential, (b) goes against our expectations, and (c) motivates the need to identify heretofore unrecognized barriers to collective action.
Levine maintained that his warnings about generating citizen “paralysis” also apply to political activism — volunteering, working for a candidate, going door-to-door, whenever that can happen again — as well as to voting.