Are Americans Feeding Off Campaign-Created Fear?

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One merely needs to pick up a newspaper or flip open a laptop to see that there’s a myriad of concerns both international and domestic. Whether these are issues of national security, global health, or related to the environment, it’s basically a fear bake-off of sorts.

The Pew Research Center recently published a series of polls on the perception of greatest threats by region, and the results were, to be blunt, predictable. You don’t need a poll to tell you that religious and ethnic hatred are going to be the largest concerns in the Middle East, or that sub-Saharan Africa’s top concerns are AIDs and infectious diseases, given the current Ebola outbreak. Nuclear weapons are a top concern in Japan, which, given the ever-present weight of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki on the nation’s psyche, is not a shocking public opinion discovery.

What is of interest is where the United States lies on this spectrum of political anxiety, and how citizens are split by political party affiliation. The poll shows that two major issues have respondents split when you look specifically at Democrats and Republicans, and they’re split between regional concerns in other parts of the world. Democrats’ main concern, with 35% naming it, is inequality (i.e., the difference between economic well-being for rich and poor Americans).

This is also the main concern of independents and the greatest worry for Europeans. Republicans’ greatest threats align not with Europeans but rather with the Middle East, with ethnic hatred listed as their top concern by 35% of respondents. While protests and racial divides in Ferguson have gained a great deal of attention in recent months, it’s more likely this concern is a result of ISIL-based fear.

What’s particularly interesting about this response is that it reflects campaigns that both parties have been focusing on for the midterm. It’s not surprising that the “greatest threat to the world” is solid campaign fodder for both parties, but it’s interesting to see that constituents — who are currently being begged by Senate candidates to hit the polls next month — have matching views to their party on what’s the most major threat.

It suggests or at least raises the possibility that campaigns and political rhetoric, which is some of the most charged and aggressive language you’ll hear from politicians, influence Americans’ perceptions, as well. We may not trust our legislature, at least based on polls, but that doesn’t mean their words don’t have an effect.

For example, look at the National Republican Senatorial Committee’s new negative ad targeting incumbent Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colorado). It plays a recording of Udall saying, “ISIL does not present an imminent threat to this nation,” and then follows up with: “Really? Can we take that chance?”

The NRSC isn’t the only group making use of ISIL and the fear of Islamic extremism. Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell’s new ad goes straight into it with descriptions of America’s “serious times” and a clip of a gunman firing.

“I think it’s something you’ll see quite a bit of this fall,” said Greg Strimple, a GOP pollster, to Politico. “I think the reason it’s a potent issue is because it speaks to a lack of presidential leadership, and the lack of leadership is becoming a character issue for the president.”

Obama came under particular fire — bad news for Democratic candidates, many of whom are attempting to create distance from the president — for his decision to pull out of Iraq, with many Republicans insisting he created an environment that allowed extremism to develop and take root within an American-manufactured power vacuum.

While anti-Obama sentiment and ISIL strategy have become buzzwords for Republican candidates, equal pay and minimum wage have both been major talking points for the Democratic Party, which accuses the right of being out of touch and unsympathetic to poor and middle-class Americans. They cite Republicans’ failure to pass fair pay and wage increase laws as evidence that their concerns and sympathies lie elsewhere.

“It’s politics,” said Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) to Politico about the fair pay vote. “It’s a one-sided vote for political reasons, so [Democrats] can use it for campaigns.” True or not, Democrats have certainly made use of the vote’s outcome in appealing to female voters, a demographic already predisposed to vote on the left.

We haven’t seen it this focused in a long time,” said Democratic pollster Celinda Lake on women’s pay issues to The Washington Post. “This can help mobilize turnout,” she added, echoing the hopes and careful wagers of so many Democratic candidates this election.

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