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“The New Campaign Theme: Fear”: Republican Candidates Are Rediscovering How To Use Fear In Campaigning

There’s a new narrative emerging about the midterm elections. After months in which political reporters essentially wrote the same stories over and over with only small variations — it’ll be a good year for Republicans; the Affordable Care Act is a disaster for Democrats; oh, wait, maybe not — we now have a brand-spanking new storyline to play with.

Now, the elections are all about security and terrorism and foreign policy.

Fear is back! Which, of course, is great for the GOP.

There is some evidence that the elections may be shifting on to these topics. But like the threat from the Islamic State, it may be being overhyped by a news media eager for excitement.

One of my theories about the ebb and flow of political coverage is that any new development that promises change is unusually attractive to political reporters. Polls that never change are boring. And if America is about to embark on a new military adventure, then change must surely be in the air.

So we’re seeing a whole raft of articles claiming that the election is now all about security, like this one and this one and this one.

Yes, the news has been dominated by the Islamic State question for the past couple of weeks, and people respond to what’s in the news when they’re asked what they care about (this is called agenda-setting). There is some public opinion data showing more people expressing concern about terrorism.

But the question is: Is there any clear evidence that the public is actually gripped by terror, that the elections are going to look any different next month than they did last month?

If the public were actually terrified, that would almost certainly be good for the GOP. Research has shown that if you make people afraid or remind them of their own mortality, a significant number will gravitate toward Republican candidates. A lot of news stories about shadowy foreign terrorist groups could be enough to do the trick.

A complicating factor, however, is that Congress is pretty much abdicating its responsibility for oversight over the escalation. What’s more, Republican candidates don’t have much to say about what’s going on in the Middle East, as GOP strategists admit:

For candidates, there’s a difficult balance to strike between using the issue to beat the drum against Obama and getting too far in the weeds on actual strategy proposals. Most GOP strategists agree that the way to talk about foreign policy this fall is to make it a broad argument about leadership and stay out of such details as whether or not the U.S. should put troops on the ground.

“I don’t think that many Republicans are going to rush out there with detailed foreign policy initiatives in their own campaigns,” said GOP pollster Wes Anderson. “I don’t think there’s any market for it — what voters want to hear is that somebody is going to take initiative and show leadership.”

Having no actual ideas hasn’t historically stopped Republicans from exploiting an issue, of course. And there are some signs that Republican candidates are rediscovering how to use fear in campaigning (see here or here), which is its own story worthy of examination.

But House Republicans are actually showing surprising unity with Obama on how to respond to ISIS. The disagreements among Republicans over how to proceed seem procedural more than anything else, and they are likely to give him what he wants in terms of training the Syrian rebels, which could undercut efforts by GOP candidates to use this against Democrats. On balance, it’s probably too early to say that the election has been transformed.


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect; The Plum Line, The Washington Post, September 12, 2014

September 13, 2014 - Posted by | Middle East, Midterm Elections, Republicans | , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. McCain sounds like he wants to run again in 2016. Let’s hope he selects a qualified running mate this time.


    Comment by walthe310 | September 13, 2014 | Reply

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