Science Shows How Coronavirus Anxieties Could Be Helping Biden’s Resurgence
Fear of infection makes people more conservative. That could spell trouble for both Sanders’ campaign and Democrats in November
An Epic Comeback
Just a week ago, media pundits were discussing whether Joe Biden’s run for the presidency was over. After a year as the race’s frontrunner, the Biden campaign was in freefall. According to Real Clear Politics’ (RCP) national polling average, Biden fell from 27.3% support nationally the day of his disappointing fourth-place finish at the Iowa caucus to 16.5% a week after his even more disappointing fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary.
Then, a dominant win in South Carolina on Saturday and a string of impressive victories on Tuesday revived his previously moribund campaign. The 77 year old candidate boomed at his victory speech, “we are very much alive!”
The media has identified influential South Carolina congressman Jim Clyburn’s endorsement of Biden three days before the South Carolina primary as the genesis of Biden’s resurgence. The endorsement helped rally black voters back to Biden and he received 61% of their support in his big win. Then, timely drop-outs and endorsements from fellow moderate candidates Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg over the next 48 hours helped catapult Biden to even bigger Super Tuesday upsets. But does that fully explain just how remarkable Biden’s turnaround has been?
It Looks Like There’s More To The Story
According to RCP’s polling averages for South Carolina, Biden had steadily lost support in the state for months, falling all the way to a mere 2% lead over second-place Bernie Sanders by February 22nd. Over the next four days Biden suddenly shot back up, recovering a 12% lead over Sanders by the time Clyburn made his endorsement on February 26th.
Considering Biden’s recovery began four days before Clyburn’s endorsement, it seems likely that the stock market crash caused by fears of a coronavirus pandemic also played a role. Biden’s national polling averages hit rock bottom on February 18th, one day before the stock market crashed with 16.5% support. Over the next few days the stock market dominated national headlines as coronavirus fears fueled its worst losses since the 2008 recession. At the same time, Biden reversed his slide and began this resurgence both in South Carolina and nationally.
Super Tuesday exit polling also suggests that conversations sorrounding coronavirus had an important effect on Biden’s turnaround. Just over half of all Super Tuesday primary voters interviewed by NBC News said that coronavirus “was an important factor in their vote.” Of those voters, 47% voted for Joe Biden, compared to 29% for Bernie Sanders. This could help explain why Biden vastly outperformed statistics website fivethirtyeight.com’s forecasts for him in almost every Super Tuesday state.
While it’s impossible to tease out the difference between fears over coronavirus’ potential impact on the economy and fears over the virus itself, there’s evidence to suggest that the latter played an important role. Twice as many voters over the age of 45 than those under 45 said that the coronavirus was an important factor in their vote, adding to Biden’s already superior performance with the over-45 crowd. Another factor could be experience: as a former Vice President voters may view Biden as having the leadership necessary to deal with a crisis. However, science shows there could be even deeper, psychological forces at play.
Pathogens And Politics
It may sound crazy, but there is now a significant amount of research that shows how anxieties over pathogens and other physical threats can influence peoples’ politics. For example, one study found that just being within sight of a hand sanitizer made participants give more conservative characterizations of their moral, social, and fiscal attitudes, while Yale researchers were able to turn conservative attitudes far more liberal through an exercise where participants imagined they were invincible to harm.
If anxiety about harm and pathogens can influence a person’s ideology, it should come as no surprise that such anxieties can also influence elections. A study during the 2008 presidential election found that the proportion of states’ votes that went to either John McCain or Barack Obama correlated with each state’s level of contagion anxiety. As contagion anxiety increased, so did the votes for the conservative candidate McCain. While Biden is certainly not as conservative as McCain, he has a more conservative record than any of the Democratic candidates that remained in the race once coronavirus fears hit the U.S. and all the major media outlets began to run wall to wall coronavirus coverage.
Coronavirus fears could also further complicate Sanders’ position as an outsider challenging the Democratic establishment. Researchers theorize that pathogen anxieties may be related to “ideas about ‘them’ versus ‘us,’ about whom we instinctively trust and don’t trust,” which would explain why fears over increasing levels of immigration (another strong correlation with states that voted for McCain) appear to go hand in hand with ingrained fears regarding pathogens. When Sanders bellows “which side are you on?” he ironically highlights a potential weakness politically that could be exacerbated by the coronavirus.
Sanders needs to expand his base to include older Democratic voters whose primary goal is defeating Donald Trump and who may be skeptical of any talk of political revolution. While Sanders wants to contrast what he sees as the progressive interests of the everyday man against the corporate interests of the “billionaire donors,” an increased pathogen threat could make it even more difficult for him to convince older Democrats to “pick his side” over the side of establishment figures like Biden and Clyburn who they’ve known and trusted for decades, even when they’re sympathetic to Sanders’ economic argument.
Careful, Trump Could Be The Perfect Pathogen Candidate
Any boost that Biden may receive in the primary from coronavirus fears could work against him in the general election. Besides the generally conservative attitudes pathogen anxieties encourage, the self-described germaphobe Donald Trump appears uniquely positioned to benefit from the psychological consequences of a national pandemic, countering the traditionally negative effect a flagging economy might pose for him.
I doubt anybody needs reminding that Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign was launched with an anti-immigrant rant, and xenophobia appears to be the attitude that most strongly correlates with pathogen anxieties: resistance to immigration is strongest in U.S. states that also have the highest incidence of infectious disease. What’s more, another study showed that increased pathogen levels in a country are associated with increases in what has been shown to be the strongest predictor of Trump support: authoritarianism. In the 2016 election, a person’s authoritarian attitudes were the strongest predictor of whether they would vote for Trump, more so than gender, age, income, race or religion.
While Biden’s resurgence might be getting a moderate boost from coronavirus anxieties, a real pandemic that starts terrorizing the country could spell bad news for Democrats in November if Trump is able to successfully channel those anxieties into support for his campaign.