Can ISIS and Ebola scare up voters?

Dr. Aileen Marty, a Miami-based infectious disease expert, stops at a checkpoint in the Lagos International Airport in Nigeria. (CNS photo/courtesy Florida International University)

Thrillers are popular in movie theaters and on television, but this year’s horrifying topics in the news don’t seem to be boosting interest in the midterm elections. ISIS, the Ebola virus, climate change, intruders in the White House, children fleeing gang warfare in Central America … nothing in the headlines is inspiring political rhetoric of an inspiring nature.

NBC News’s First Read reported on Wednesday that its latest poll shows “high interest” in the elections at 50 percent. This is essentially the same as the 51 percent reported in June, but the one-point change gave Chuck Todd and company the change to break out the shouty caps: “Let it sink in: INTEREST IN THE ELECTION ACTUALLY DROPPED as the midterms drew closer. It’s truly a stunning trend.” The First Read team calls it “The Great American Tune Out,” but it’s an asymmetrical boycott, as the poll finds 59 percent of Republicans highly interested in the election, compared with 47 percent of Democrats and 35 percent of independents.


The Washington Post’s Aaron Blake points to one possible reason for the lethargy: “The Democratic Party is held in worse regard than at any point in the past 30 years, according to a new poll.” Only 39 percent of respondents in a Washington Post/ABC News poll had a favorable view of the Democratic Party. That’s so bad that it’s only six points better than the favorability rating for the Republican Party (33 percent).

America’s meh syndrome is forcing some desperate get-out-the-vote tactics. Vox’s Zack Beauchamp rounded up some frightening campaign commercials and concluded, “Republicans across the country have a remarkably consistent message on ISIS. Ads … consistently say that ISIS is a major threat to American security. It’s such a large threat, in fact, that weak Democrats can’t be trusted to combat it.”

Beauchamp notes the cautionary tale of Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, who said in a debate that ISIS “does not present an imminent threat to this nation.” True or not, that was a brazen violation of the Cover Your Ass rule of politics, and Udall, now slightly behind in his race for re-election, has had to toughen his language on terrorism. At the same time, Udall has distanced himself from President Barack Obama and raised a different fear in a new campaign ad, that of Big Brother. “Mass collection of our phone and Internet records started under a Republican president, continued under a Democratic one. I won’t tolerate it,” Udall tells the camera.

But even ISIS is taking a supporting role to the Ebola virus, which the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza calls this year’s “October surprise.” (“That is, an unexpected event that has the potential to roil the electorate in all sorts of unpredictable ways.”) At this writing, only two Americans have contracted the virus, both nurses in Texas who had contact with an Ebola patient from Liberia, but fear of the disease is reshaping American politics. Sen. John McCain has called for Obama to appoint an “Ebola czar” (“I’d like to know who’s in charge”), though he’s been critical of the president naming similar “czars” in the past. The New York Times reports that “Republicans like Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana — all possible 2016 presidential candidates — have accused Mr. Obama of leaving Americans vulnerable to the Ebola epidemic.”

It’s the under-the-radar media that has the most potential to “roil the electorate in unexpected ways.” The Times goes on to report, “Conservative media like the Drudge Report have created crude puns to rhyme the president’s last name with the virus. The Daily Caller has christened him ‘President Ebola.’” Radio host Michael Savage said of Obama, “He could’ve stopped this. It’s getting out of control,” and said that the virus was one more reason that with two years left in Obama’s term, “we’re not gonna survive” as a nation with “firm borders” and a “cohesive culture.”

On Fox News Radio, according to Talking Points Memo, Dr. Keith Ablow suggested that he knows Obama’s mind better than the president himself, and it’s bad news for America: “He has it in for us as disappointing people. People who’ve been a scourge on the face of the Earth. … In his mind, if only unconsciously, he’s thinking, ‘Really? We’re going to prevent folks suffering with illnesses from coming across the border flying into our airports when we have visited a plague of colonialism that has devastated much of the world, on the world? What is the fairness in that?’” Ablow asked of Obama, “How can you protect a country you don’t like?”

At the RedState website, editor Erick Erickson neatly tied Ebola to resentment of food stamp recipients: “I bet, if we are patient, the administration will even place Ebola with a nice family somewhere in Middle America and given it government benefits.”

Democrats are wanly trying to take the offensive on Ebola, arguing that Republican cheapness in funding medical research and the Centers for Disease Control is putting the country at risk. But that argument may not be as effective as the “President Ebola” meme in scaring people to the polls. “This line of attack is absurd,” says the Washington Post's FactChecker, arguing that “both Democrats and Republicans in recent years have broadly supported efforts to rein in federal spending.”

New York Times science reporter Benedict Carey reassured readers on Thursday, “The risk of Ebola infection remains vanishingly small in this country.” Perhaps inadvertently, in explaining the spread of Ebola hysteria he also explained a lot about the electoral process:

Instinctual reactions are quick and automatic, useful in times when the facts are not known or there is not enough time to process what little is known. Analytical reasoning is much slower and much harder; if we relied on analysis alone, decisions about risk would paralyze us.

Is he talking about Ebola or campaign commercials?

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