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Fear Usually Sends Voters To The Right, But This Year Might Be Different

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA

Dana Ash, 59, of Morningside has voted in every presidential election of the last 40 years. She said she considers herself an Independent and has voted for Republicans in congressional, state and local races, but never in presidential races. This year is no different.

“(Donald Trump) scares the bejesus out of me, he really does,” she said. “I think he’s a loose cannon and I really am afraid for what’s going to happen to this country if he’s elected.”

Ash said, truth be told, she is not all that thrilled by Hillary Clinton, either. But she said she’ll do what she has to do to keep the Republican nominee out of the White House.

“I really dislike the fact that I’m that fearful, that I’m voting the lesser of two evils, that I don’t have a choice that more closely aligns with my own ideals,” she said. “I’m not alone in that.”

An August poll from USA Today and Suffolk University in Boston showed the majority of both Trump and Clinton supporters were scared of the other candidate winning.

Political scientists are increasingly interested in the emotions that motivate people’s voting choices, and Meri Long, who teaches political science at the University of Pittsburgh, said researchers have paid special attention to the role of fear in recent years.

“When people feel threatened, they tend to look for strong leaders,” she said. “The way that fear primes people, it actually tends to advantage conservatives. People begin to think about their own survival when they’re under times of fear, particularly terrorist threat and things of that nature.”

Perhaps that’s what Donald Trump had in mind at the Republican National Convention this summer, when he delivered what a McGill University researcher found to be the most negative acceptance speech in more than 40 years.

Trump presented an America of crime and lawlessness, where the federal government has failed to protect the lives of its citizens.

“I have a message for all of you: the crime and violence that today afflicts our nation will soon come to an end,” He told a roaring crowd. “Beginning on Jan. 20, 2017, safety will be restored.”

But Long said Trump’s own rhetoric could be backfiring, particularly his focus on terroristic threats coming from abroad. She said it’s possible that by focusing on these issues, he’s actually driven fearful voters to Hillary Clinton.

“The potential benefit that might have been accrued to him (as the conservative candidate) is outweighed by him seeming unsteady in these types of matters,” she said.

Clinton has tried to take advantage of Trump’s reputation as unsteady, saying in her convention speech “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.” She also invokes fears of nuclear war in a new ad, released Monday, called “Daisy.”

It begins with a woman named Monique Luiz, describing her shock at the fact that nuclear war is an issue in this election.

“The fear of nuclear war we had as children, I never thought our children would ever have to deal with that again, and to see that coming forward in this election is really scary,” she said.

She's followed by a clip from the MSNBC program "Morning Joe," showing an interaction between commentator Mike Barnicle and host Joe Scarborough.

“Trump asks three times,” said Barnicle, to which Scarborough responds “Three times, why can’t we use nuclear weapons?

Then, a clip from a Trump speech saying he wants to be unpredictable.

The ad shares a name with an iconic 1964 ad from Lyndon B. Johnson, also called Daisy.

Luiz, as a little girl, was the star of that ad, counting the petals of a flower as she plucked them off. Next, a man’s voice counts down from 10. Then, an explosion

“These are the stakes, to make a world in which all of God’s children can live or go into the dark,” Johnson said over the image of a nuclear blast. “We must either love each other or we must die.”

Johnson’s attack ad against Republican Barry Goldwater was one of the first in a long line of ads meant to motivate voters with fear.

A https://youtu.be/NpwdcmjBgNA">1984 ad for Ronald Reagan warns viewers “there is a bear in the woods.”

Even though research showed voters weren’t entirely clear on what the vague reference to threats posed by the Soviet Union actually meant, it’s still considered a highly effective political ad.

In fact, https://youtu.be/_s71-Q2XBZg">George W. Bush emulated it with his 2004 ad titled “Wolves,” which accused Democrat John Kerry and other liberals in Congress of wanting to cut spending and weaken America’s defenses.

Ted Cruz also https://youtu.be/f4K_uFZW9Jk">mimicked the Bear ad with his commercial from last year proclaiming “there is a scorpion in the desert."

The National Rifle Association has played on https://youtu.be/hPM8e_DauUw">voter fears that Clinton will take their guns away in an ad featuring a woman who wakes in the middle of the night to find an intruder in her home and her handgun missing from the lockbox where she keeps it.

Credit Liz Reid / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
Dan Makowski, 38, of Upper Burrell (left) and Joe Hickey, 22, of the South Hills at a pro-Trump debate watch party at Magill's Grill in Lower Burrell on October 19, 2016.

That message seems to be resonating with some Trump supporters, including 22-year-old Jackson Hickey from the South Hills.

“Second amendment, I’m terrified of losing a lot of that," he said. "I do work in a gun store. I sell guns for a living. It’s something that concerns me as far as our Supreme Court justices. I’d hate to see our constitution go any further destroyed than it is before. As far as being afraid, not so much, I’d just hate to see that more than anything.”

At a Clinton rally at Chatham University last week, Vice President Joe Biden invoked the words of one of American history’s most loved Republican presidents, Abraham Lincoln, when he said the voters must appeal to the better angels of their natures.

“Candidates who appeal to the fears of the American people have never succeeded,” he said.

While a noble thought, it wasn’t true in past elections and it won’t be true in this one.

Liz Reid began working at WESA in 2013 as a general assignment reporter and weekend host. Since then, she’s worked as the Morning Edition producer, health & science reporter and as an editor.