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Trump banks on fear and anxiety to motivate voters

First presidential debate kicks off Tuesday
First presidential debate kicks off Tuesday 03:18

President Trump's central reelection campaign theme was perhaps most simply expressed in a remark in his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention: "No one will be safe in Biden's America."

Amid the coronavirus pandemic, as protests and deadly violence have erupted in American cities, the president's campaign has sought to tap into powerful human emotions — fear and anxiety. Pointing to the fires set in Minneapolis, Minnesota, the storefronts with smashed windows in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and the shooting of police officers in Los Angeles and Louisville, Kentucky, Mr. Trump's message is clear, that it will not only continue, but will spread to the suburbs if he's not reelected.

The president, who is struggling in the suburbs, particularly among women and college-educated voters, is pressing the argument that Biden can't keep them safe, even though the scenes on television are unfolding during his presidency. 

"I keep hearing about suburban women, like you, right?" Mr. Trump said at a rally in Newport News, Virginia, last week, focusing on a woman in the crowd. "Well, I just ended a regulation that would have allowed projects. You mind having a project right next to your house? You live in a beautiful house, right? Happily married, beautiful kids, everything perfect. The American dream, right? You mind having a project built next door? She said she minds."

 On September 8, he tweeted: "Suburban voters are pouring into the Republican Party because of the violence in Democrat run cities and states. If Biden gets in, this violence is 'coming to the Suburbs', and FAST. You could say goodbye to your American Dream!"

At the Republican convention, he told supporters how Biden threatened to destroy all the things they hold sacred, even though there's nothing on Mr. Trump's list that resembles a stance Biden has taken.

"If the left gains power, they will demolish the suburbs, confiscate your guns, and appoint justices who will wipe away your Second Amendment and other Constitutional freedoms," he said from an American flag-filled White House South Lawn. "Make no mistake, if you give power to Joe Biden, the radical left will Defund Police Departments all across America. They will pass federal legislation to reduce law enforcement nationwide. They will make every city look like Democrat-run Portland, Oregon. No one will be safe in Biden's America."

It's not a new strategy, but it's also no sure bet that what worked for Mr. Trump in 2016, when he was an outsider who had never held office, will work in 2020 when he's the incumbent.

2016 v. 2020

Mr. Trump's foil is different now than it was in 2016 and 2018, when he portrayed undocumented immigrants as an existential threat against the American Dream, some political scientists observe.

That message worked for the president's base in 2016, said Bethany Albertson, a political psychologist and an associate professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2015, she co-authored "Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World," which examined anxiety and politics. 

"His messaging in 2016 that connected particularly firmly with his base was fear of immigration," Albertson said. 

"Concentrating our anxieties on immigration, that was effective for him in motivating his base," she added, noting, "plenty of people did not see immigration as their top worry in 2016. But yeah, it certainly worked for some of the population."

But events have changed, and so has the president's focus. 

"Instead of these migrant caravans threatening the border, we now hear that Black Lives Matter, and peaceful protests are threatening law and order issues," said Professor Darren Davis, professor of political science and the director for the Center for Social Research at the University of Notre Dame. "So the big caravan, migrant caravan, debate was relevant in 2015, 2016. Protecting our border is no longer being talked about." 

Yet whatever powers fear and anxiety have over voters, they're not the only forces at work. Take Mr. Trump's reliance on undocumented immigrants as a source of fear in the last presidential election. In 2016, exit polling analysis by CNN showed immigration was the top issue for just 13% of voters. Among those voters, two-thirds voted for Mr. Trump. CBS News' analysis found that seven of 10 voters said undocumented immigrants in the U.S. should be allowed to apply for legal status. And yet, among people who supported giving immigrants a path to legal status, one in three voted for Mr. Trump. He may have won in part not because of the fear he inspired about immigrants, but in spite of it.

Emotions and voting

Anxiety is a less predictable indicator for voting than anger, which is a consistent predictor in voting, says Albertson. 

"When people are anxious about COVID, they're more likely to trust Biden. And so part of what Trump's trying to do is switch the basis of our anxiety," said Albertson. "We see this messaging that what we really need to worry about is the suburbs ... Don't look there, look over here. This is what you ought to be afraid of."

Albertson draws a distinction between types of threats. An example of an unframed threat is a terrorist attack, which instills fear regardless of political persuasion. A framed threat is one based on an individual's worldview or politics. 

"Our framed threats are immigration and climate change," Albertson said. "Some people feel anxious about these things; some people don't. And there are partisan contours both to who feels anxious and who we trust to handle these issues."

Anxiety, said Michael Neblo, director of the Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability at The Ohio State University, causes people to second-guess their thoughts and beliefs. 

"When people are anxious, they're willing to reconsider their settled views," Neblo said. "And right now, with Biden leading in the polls, the president needs to get people to reconsider things. And anxious people are more willing to to take a second look, and to, you know, really invest some time and energy in evaluating the choices before them."

"Some people might react to [Mr. Trump's] appeals to fear with disgust," he said. "And that's going to make them more likely to show up against him. It's not clear that his appeals to fear will necessarily work with the people he needs it work with."

"Fear is always basically the best motivator."

The president certainly isn't alone in trying to seize on voters' anxieties.

"Both sides use it very effectively," said Tom Davis, former congressman from Virginia and former National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) chairman. "For both sides, fear is always basically the best motivator."

Democrats, for instance, warn that Republicans and Mr. Trump will ruin or take away health care, he said. Fear that Republicans would take away the Affordable Health Care Act, as they have threatened, was an effective motivator in 2018, when Democrats took back the House. Biden warned on Sunday that Mr. Trump is trying to "steal away" health care protections.

The Supreme Court vacancy and nomination of conservative Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg affords Democrats the ability use the threat of a potential Supreme Court justice who is anti-abortion rights. 

"Both sides do this with impunity because voters reward it," Davis said of both Democrats and Republicans leveraging fear. 

Running negative ads based on fear about what an opponent would do with power is an effective way to win elections, said the former NRCC chairman, who ran and advised on plenty of races himself. Going positive is only best in the last days leading up to voting, he said. 

Anxiety and the incumbent

Using anxiety is an unusual approach for an incumbent to take. 

"Anxiety is the 'stop and look around and change course if you need to' emotion, right?" Albertson said, pointing out that "for an incumbent, they want to offer us a stay-the-course kind of narrative, whereas he's offering us more fear."

But Davis, the former congressman, said fear and anxiety can "absolutely" be effective, even for an incumbent like Mr. Trump. 

But it remains to be seen whether messages based in fear or anxiety will work well for voters in the middle Mr. Trump desperately needs to win reelection. 

"In the same way that it riles up his base and makes them more likely to participate, it very well could rile up his opponents and make them all the more committed to getting out and working against him," Davis, the professor, said. "It's not clear to me how it nets out."

As Americans are already casting their ballots five weeks out from the election, it's a strategy Mr. Trump needs to work. 

"He's an incumbent who's losing," Neblo said. "And so it becomes a more complicated balance of the scales."

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