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The three anxieties of 2020

Politics in Iowa Web (1)

By Christopher W. Larimer, University of Northern Iowa Professor of Political Science.

On Tuesday night, I participated in the webinar, “Understanding the 2020 Election,” hosted by the University of Iowa.  During that discussion, one of my fellow panelists, David Redlawsk of the University of Delaware, discussed the role of emotions in politics.  As Redlawsk noted, while “negative” emotions such as anger can have behavioral effects (such as increasing the likelihood of voting), less powerful emotions, such as anxiety, operate differently, by forcing voters to “pay attention” to certain issues. 

The year 2020 and the accompanying election cycle has certainly produced a considerable amount of anxiety, and this anxiety seems to fall along three dimensions: health anxiety, economic anxiety, and political anxiety.  The first two are obvious: the pandemic has created serious concerns for individual, family, and communal health, while the resulting shutdown has caused serious economic damage for individuals and families, as well as all levels of government.  Political anxiety, I would argue, is voters’ general (and increasing) distrust and disgust with what they see as a broken system characterized by hyperpartisanship and big money.

What do these different anxieties mean for the outcome of the election?

On economic anxiety, while the president was once viewed as better able to handle the economy, this has narrowed in recent polls.  To this point, as Barry Burden of the University of Wisconsin pointed out Tuesday night,  economic anxiety, specifically increasing unemployment rates, can be an “agitating” factor that actually increases voter turnout.  So far in 2020, the early and absentee vote are breaking records in many states, but we still do not know which candidate is benefiting from this surge.  Joe Biden, meanwhile, maintains a lead on health anxiety, with voters generally viewing him as better able to handle the pandemic. 

On political anxiety, it is unclear who benefits.  On the one hand, the former Vice President’s softer tone, demeanor, and less confrontational personality, and polling edge among moderate voters, would seem to give him the advantage.  On the other hand, some voters may be looking for the opposite in these uncertain times, thus favoring the president. 

Hopefully we will have an answer in two weeks...

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