The Virus of Fear: The Political Impact of Ebola in the US

The Virus of Fear: The Political Impact of Ebola in the US (2021)
with Emilio Depetris-Chauvin and Ruben Durante. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER WP 26897) [Online Article] [PDF]
Abstract

We study how negative emotions can affect the behavior of voters and politicians by looking at the Ebola scare that hit the U.S. right before the 2014 midterm elections. Exploiting the timing and location of the four cases diagnosed in the U.S., we show that heightened concern about Ebola led to a lower vote share for the Democrats, as well as lower turnout, despite no evidence of a general anti-incumbent effect (including for President Obama). We then show that Republican politicians exploited the Ebola scare strategically by mentioning the disease in connection with immigration, terrorism, and President Obama. Voters responded with increased concern with Ebola, and increasingly conservative attitudes on immigration but not on other ideologically-charged issues. Our findings indicate that emotional reactions can have a strong electoral impact, that politicians perceive and respond strategically, and that this is mediated by issues that can be plausibly associated with the specific triggering factor.