Summary

THE WASHINGTON FOREIGN PRESS CENTER, WASHINGTON, D.C. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, good afternoon.  Welcome, everyone.  My name is Jen McAndrew.  I am a media relations officer with the Washington Foreign Press Center and the moderator for today’s on-the-record briefing in our Elections 2020 series on voter psychology and how public health concerns affect political behavior.  Today’s briefer is Dr. Bethany Albertson, associate professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin.  She is an expert on political attitudes, emotion, and persuasion, and author of the book “Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World.”  Professor Albertson will discuss how concerns about public health and the economy affect political behavior and engagement in a democracy, how voters consume political news, and which political parties voters support based on her research.  We greatly appreciate Professor Albertson for giving her time today in this briefing. 

And now for the ground rules.  This briefing is on the record.  The views expressed by briefers not affiliated with the Department of State or the U.S. Government are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Department of State or the U.S. Government.  Participation in the Foreign Press Center programming does not imply endorsement, approval, or recommendation of their views.  We will post the transcript of this briefing later today on our website, which is – sorry – fpc.state.gov.  If you publish a story as a result of this briefing, please share your story with us by sending an email to dcfpc@state.gov. 

Professor Albertson will give opening remarks and then we will open it up for questions.  If you have a question, please go to the participant field and virtually raise your hand.  At that time, we will unmute you and turn our your video so you can ask your question.  If you have not already done so, please take the time now to rename your Zoom profile with your full name and the name of your media outlet.  And with that, I will pass it over to Professor Albertson. 

MS ALBERTSON:  Well, thank you.  I will share my screen.  There we go. 

Okay, I’m so pleased to be here today to talk to you about voter psychology and how public health concerns affect political behavior.  The outline for what I’m going to present to you is I want to explain to you what we know about anxiety, about public health under what I’m going to call normal circumstances.  I’m going to give you a bit on 2020 and COVID-19 related to a very polarized context, and my major argument here is that we are a very politically divided country right now and that means that the COVID outbreak and anxiety around COVID is likely to have diminished effects going into the election. 

I’m going to be drawing upon research that I published in a 2015 book with my coauthor Shana Kushner Gadarian, who’s an associate professor – excuse me, a full professor – at Syracuse, and I will also be sharing pieces from a more recent Washington Post article that we did in response to COVID.  I will also be pulling in some public opinion data that’s more current that can speak to our attitudes right now in the context of COVID and an election. 

Okay, so to start with, my research is on anxiety.  Anxiety is an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, physical changes like sweaty palms and increased blood pressure.  We are probably all familiar with this emotion, and it has implications for the ways that we engage in politics.  The argument that Shana and I put forth in our book is that anxiety is an uncomfortable feeling and it’s going to trigger coping mechanisms.  In politics, anxiety causes us to seek out protection.  Political anxiety, we find, increases trust in experts who can help protect us and provide information for individuals to protect them from harm.  Anxiety also causes us to support more protective policies. 

One of the distinctions we make in the book is the distinction between what we call unframed threats and framed threats.  Unframed threats are widely agreed upon in terms of the cause of harm.  Harms may include imminent bodily harm and/or death.  You do not need an elite to tell you that you ought to be scared by an unframed threat.  In contrast, a framed threat is a threat in which there are debated causes of harm.  They may not be physical and the harms may be delayed.  In the U.S. context, when we did this research, we conceived of a terrorist attack right when it happens as an unframed threat, a flood right when it happens as an unframed threat, and a disease outbreak as an unframed threat. 

In terms of framed threats, we looked at the issues of immigration, the war on terror, and climate change.  What’s different about these framed threats is that whether you experience anxiety or not depends on who you’re listening to.  It’s also true that the consequences of your anxiety in the realm of framed threats take on partisan contours.  With an unframed threat, partisanship is less relevant.  People trust experts to deal with the threat. 

I’m going to show you some of the studies we did on public health crises as we conceived of them as unframed threats and then transition to explaining why COVID is different.  So we did two studies in the book where we manipulated anxiety over a public health threat to trigger anxiety and then we looked at who people trusted when they were more anxious.  So the methodological details – and I can go into more if you like – with the H1N1 study we used a bottom-up manipulation.  One group was asked to just reflect their worries about H1N1 and one group was asked to reflect on what worries them about H1N1 – or sorry, one group’s asked their worries about H1N1 and one’s just asked what they think about when they think about H1N1.  And a variety of studies have shown that this bottom-up manipulation can raise anxiety in the treatment group as compared to the control group.  One group’s listing worries and their feelings; one group’s listing their thoughts. 

So this study was done in 2010 in the context of the H1N1 anxiety in the U.S. and this is a very typical finding in anxiety research, that we’re anxious about a public health threat and so we need to put our trust in somebody who can manage that threat.  I, as an individual, don’t have the power to control H1N1 or COVID.  I need something bigger than myself.   

And we see here that anxiety increased confidence in the federal government.  This is the control group versus the treatment group.  Only thing different between them is one group listed their thoughts and one group listed their worries. 

There’s a slight bump in terms of trust in the president but that difference was not statistically significant. 

We also looked to see who people trusted in terms of information sources.  We found significant increases in terms of trust in the CDC, the FDA, Health and Human Services, WebMD, and a personal doctor.  We take this as a sign that people are putting their trust in relevant medical experts.  You may be questioning why there was no boost in trust for the Surgeon General.  In a subsequent study, we manipulated the framing of the Surgeon General.  The Surgeon General is both a medical expert and a political appointee.  When the Surgeon General is framed as a political appointee, there is no boost in trust for the Surgeon General based on anxiety.  When the Surgeon General is framed as a medical expert, there is a boost in trust for the Surgeon General. 

The second study I want to show you is our smallpox study.  In this study, we manipulate whether subjects are exposed to a newspaper article about a smallpox outbreak that happened either 25 years ago or is happening right now.  The idea here is to hold thoughts about smallpox constant while raising anxiety levels about the disease.   

Again, we see – back up.  We were interested first in if people are putting their trust in relevant groups, which is why you see some irrelevant groups in this study.  The IRS, for instance, nobody expects them to step in in the event of smallpox.  The Fed.  Oprah – maybe.  What we found was not only are people distinguishing between relevant and irrelevant entities, anxiety is boosting their trust in relevant entities like the CDC, Health and Human Services, right.   

Okay, what does our research have to say about this current context?  These are the statistics that I got last night off of The New York Times website.  It’s not an understatement, right – an overstatement, excuse me – to say that this country is being devastated by COVID.  I would argue, though, that for various reasons, the effect of this public health crisis is more like the framed threats in our book than the public health studies we did before, which we conceived of as unframed threats where our results did not depend upon partisanship.  And a few pieces of evidence of that:  We see stark partisan differences in terms of concern over getting COVID-19 and requiring hospitalization.  This is from Pew, and you can see 64 percent of Democrats versus 35 percent of Republicans concerned that one might unknowingly spread COVID-19 to others.  Seventy-seven percent of Democrats, 45 percent of Republicans.  Two-thirds of conservative Republicans say that the increase in COVID cases is due to increased testing, right.  In contrast, Democrats and liberals are much more likely to say that the increase is due to more infections, not just more tests.    

The partisanship is shaping the way that we see this crisis and whether we think it’s a crisis.  Some really great research that’s been ongoing by Shana Gadarian, Sara Goodman, and Tom Pepinsky, and is available in some papers but also on Tom Pepinsky’s blog if you’re looking, are partisan differences in health behaviors and support for policies, right.  So you see some differences in terms of Democrats being more likely to avoid gatherings, seeking information on COVID, in terms of self-quarantine.  There aren’t differences in terms of stopping religious attendance or visiting the doctor, but protective measures like buying hand sanitizer and avoiding contact with others, we see a partisan difference there.  We also see stark partisan differences in terms of policies people are willing to support.  Canceling everything – more popular among Democrats – waiving treatment costs, paid leave if sick.  One point of optimism, though, for those of us who worry about partisan polarization:  The idea of delaying an election is unpopular, deeply unpopular across the political spectrum.   

Vote by mail is a very important issue in this election.  I thought this graphic from The Washington Post very nicely illustrated the number of people in the United States who can cast ballots by mail in the fall.  Many Americans are saying they want to vote by mail.  Democrats are a little more likely – excuse me, are more likely to say they want to vote by mail than Republicans, which squares with what we’re finding about differences in anxiety levels. 

So these are the states.  Eighty-three percent of American voters can cast ballots by mail in the fall.  While there are a few people who would support delaying an election, thank goodness – that’s in our Constitution for good reason, right – there are stark political differences in terms of support for vote-by-mail.  Democrats are much, much more likely to support this, Republicans are much less likely to support this, which is consistent with partisan messaging that’s happening now.   

You may be wondering, this very big event, if we think of COVID-19 as an event, is happening to the country, and why isn’t it affecting our elections?  And the background I want you to know for that is that we have a highly partisan context.  If you look at the tracking data on support for Biden and support for Trump, from March 2020 to today there is very little fluctuation.  This is striking compared to elections of the past, where we’ve seen much more bouncing around in relation to things like conventions, announcing a VP, right?   

Things aren’t shifting the way that we normally expect them to, and that’s because we think people are locked in.  More people are locked into their preferences early on in this election.   

In terms of who we’re listening to and paying attention to, again, this points to perhaps limited electoral implications.  Democrats are listening to and trusting Joe Biden when it comes to COVID.  In contrast, Republicans are listening to, paying attention to, trusting Donald Trump.   

So for many of us, for those of us who are partisan, we’re living in two different realities around this debate.  Independents are more likely to trust Joe Biden, and we’re seeing that in the polling results so far as well.   

And with that, I want you to come away with this with some main points here.  Worry over public health would typically boost support in government, particularly people with expertise around a public health crisis.  Today’s polarized climate is different.  Partisanship affects not only who’s worried about COVID, their preferred political responses, and who they trust, but then fewer voters are, quote, “up for grabs.”   

And with that, we’ll turn to questions. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, thank you very much for that presentation.  We will now start the Q&A, and I’ll remind all of our participants to please raise your hand virtually in the participant field, or you can submit your question via the chat box and I will read it for the group.  So do we have any questions?   

Yes, I see a hand raised from Federico Rampini, La Republica, Italy.  We will now unmute you.  Go ahead, Federico. 

QUESTION:  Hi, can you hear me?   

MS ALBERTSON:  Yes. 

QUESTION:  Yes.  So my question is:  Do you have an idea of how much COVID is important to voters compared to other issues, for instance, the economy? 

MS ALBERTSON:  Yes.  Right now, COVID is the main worry of voters in this country.  That is telling in terms of where the polls are in terms of support for Donald Trump and Joe Biden, right?  There is more trust in Biden to handle the COVID crisis.  Donald Trump is more trusted – a little bit – on the economy.  And so as you watch political strategies moving forward, some of what the Republican Party will be up to is trying to reframe the debate to be about the economy.  But that’s where Donald Trump has had and may have a better advantage.   

But right now, Americans are more worried about COVID.  In the past week or two weeks, there has been speculation among pundits, among people who are watching politics, that the unrest around protests, police killings of black men, right, that that would shift our focus to a more law and order frame, as the President has said.  The polling so far doesn’t bear that out.  White Americans in particular have become more worried about unrest, but COVID worries still are much more prominent and central to this election than either racial problems in the U.S. or the economy.   

One of the things to look for moving forward to the election, though, is if the basis of our worries shifts, it could also shake up the race.   

MODERATOR:  Okay, thank you.  We’ll go to the next question.  Alexis Buisson, La Croix France.  We will now unmute you.   

QUESTION:  Thank you, Jen.  Thank you for organizing this, and hello, Doctor.  I have a question specifically on seniors.  Do you have an idea of how the COVID crisis might impact voting behavior of American seniors specifically?  Thank you.   

MS ALBERTSON:  Yes.  Great question.  If you don’t know this, you should.  One thing to know about American politics is that seniors vote.   

QUESTION:  Yes. 

MS ALBERTSON:  There’s big differences in age groups and participation in politics.  I mean, seniors vote.  They’re very good voters.  There aren’t differences in intention to vote right now.  Seniors are more likely to be able to access vote-by-mail.  For instance, in my state, in Texas, you can get a mail ballot if you’re 65 and over, right.  So they’re in some places more accessible or more able to vote by mail.   

The other trend we’re seeing – so I don’t expect turnout to drop among older Americans.  The shift we’re seeing versus 2016 is that this is one group that Joe Biden is gaining among in contrast to Hillary Clinton, right.  There’s some groups where Joe Biden isn’t performing as well against Donald Trump, but older Americans is one area where Joe Biden is doing better in this election.  

QUESTION:  And specifically, do you think there’s – the crisis is helping move that – yeah? 

MS ALBERTSON:  I’m nodding because yes, yes.  There’s COVID concern among older Americans for a variety of reasons: the outbreaks in nursing homes and among those communities is particularly devastating, and I mean, grandparents want to see their grandchildren.   

QUESTION:  Thank you.   

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’ll now go to Elena Lentza, LUSA Portugal.  We will now unmute you.   

QUESTION:  Hello?  Good morning.  Dr. Bethany, thanks so much for the briefing.  I have two questions.  First of all, I wanted to ask you how much can the existence of a vaccine by November 1st influentiate the vote, and will that influentiate people to vote for Trump more?   

MS ALBERTSON:  Things I wish I knew.  It’s – there’s going to be very – there are going to be a lot of ifs in this statement:  If there were a vaccine, if it were trusted, if it were – if it was distributed in ways that Americans could get a hold of – many, many, many, many ifs, that would free up the President to return the debate back to the economy and the President would be in a much better situation.  I don’t anticipate that world existing, though.   

QUESTION:  But they have already announced that maybe by November 1st there will be a vaccine, so I don’t know for sure if it will be already given to the states or so, but I know that it should already be ready for that.   

MS ALBERTSON:  The CDC has asked the states to be ready for a vaccine.  Whether people believe that’s going to happen is highly, highly dependent on partisanship, right.  Democrats are deeply skeptical, independents also.  It’s Republicans; it’s people who are already on board.  Remember those trust-in-information differences I showed you?  That’s a message that will resonate with and reassure Republican voters.  I don’t expect that it’s a message that will reassure Democrats.  I think Democrats would need to actually see it happening, and the scope of that project seems far beyond the Election Day. 

QUESTION:  Okay.  My second question is:  After the elections and after we know the results, and what can we expect from the voters who voted for, let’s say, the loser?  Either it’s Trump or Biden – the voters who kind of lost the election, they will be very disappointed.  Will they still be up to voting next election – presidential election?  

MS ALBERTSON:  I hope so, right.  One of the things that we assume in American politics is peaceful transitions of power, leaders – loser’s consent, right, one group wins, one group loses.  The losers go home, rethink their strategy, and come back the next time.   

I could point to some highly contested elections; 2000, for instance, dragged on for weeks and ultimately brought the Supreme Court in.  George W. Bush was an accepted president afterwards.  Of course, some people had their qualms, but it was mostly dislike of the president; it wasn’t a distrust in the process or the basic structures of our government.   

In this election there has been more talk among people, and particularly what’s different here politically in terms of the legitimacy of the election, and so I would put your attention towards that, the way elites are messaging legitimacy or illegitimacy of the election.  I don’t expect that the supporters of either party are going to go home and disengage from politics.  We have this thing called midterm elections, and the losing party has been quite good at showing up in midterm elections and making their voices heard, and that’s a much more common reaction in American politics. 

QUESTION:  Okay, thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, I would now like to call on Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News TV, Pakistan.  We will now unmute you. 

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Thank you so much.  Good morning.  Thank you for doing this.  My question is that President Trump encourages supporters to try to vote twice, like once by mail and once in person, to check the act of voter fraud.  Do you really think that this statement can do anything with this anxiety or fears of losing the elections?  Thank you. 

MS ALBERTSON:  I’ve seen the statements and I’ve also seen the administration try to clean it up.  I would expect that in the next couple of days there will be more messaging on trying to clean it up, because that’s fraud, and if a voter did that it’s illegal.  And so I don’t think that that is reassuring for voters to hear from the President.  I expect aggressive cleanup strategies from the administration on this and counter-messaging, which has already started, right, the minute he says that.  The Democratic leaders and news organizations, et cetera, are trying to correct that, saying you can’t vote twice to test the system. 

MODERATOR:  Okay.  Next question from Alex, Turan News Agency, Azerbaijan. 

QUESTION:  Yes, good afternoon.  Thank you so very much, and it’s great to see you.  This is Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency of Azerbaijan, and thank you, Bethany, for an excellent presentation.  I do want to follow up with the previous question regarding vaccine.  If you were to speculate, can you suggest any other, perhaps, October surprises that might emerge prior to the election and would affect the public opinion significantly?  In 2016 it was emails and Russia.  Are there other possible, let’s say, October surprises that you can come up with? 

And my second question:  As we all grapple with the pandemic, there is increased discussion of democratic institutions relying more heavily on technology in elections, and I want to put it into perspective in terms of voter psychology.  Before election management bodies move forward with internet voting or mail-in voting, how much do you think we properly understand the associated risks and challenges, as well as opportunities, perhaps, of such a novel and relatively untested technology?  Thank you very much. 

MS ALBERTSON:  Okay, two big questions.  The first I cannot answer as a political scientist.  As a citizen, as somebody who consumes news, as – it could be anything, right.  The October surprise could be anything.  If I were a betting woman, I would put my money on Hunter Biden, Burisma, something in the Ukraine, et cetera.  Not as a political scientist; just as somebody who observes politics.  Yeah, I would keep your eyes open for the October surprise.   

Here’s the political science point, though.  The same thing I mentioned about people’s preferences being locked in, we have fewer voters up for grabs; that’s going to attenuate any October surprise effects, I would imagine.   

Okay.  In terms of technology and what people know about voting and voter psychology, I think that’s a really important area moving forward.  People need to trust elections.  They need to trust the apparatus of elections.  And the good news in American politics is that for the most part, people do trust the machinery of elections itself.  They trust their local election administrators. 

Now, what’s interesting, I think, about U.S. politics and its elections is that elections are state-run, and so your experience in Texas is very different from your experience in California, is very different from your experience in terms of Illinois, right.  In California, people are being mailed ballots.  In Texas, you have to register 30 days in advance.  Right, they’re all different.  The machines we vote on will be different depending upon where you live.  And so I think changes with the technology of how one votes need to be accompanied by attention to voter psychology and building trust in elections, but also need to attend to the 50-plus different systems we have in terms of running our elections. 

That difference – the fact that our elections are carried out by the states – is something that traditionally gives us confidence in elections, by the way, right.  The fact that it’s a – I’m not going to say disorganized, but a decentralized system, makes us less vulnerable is what people argue about the American setup of elections. 

QUESTION:  Terrific, thanks so much. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Next question I’d like to call on Garry Iwele from Democratic Republic of Congo.  Go ahead. 

QUESTION:  Thank you very much for organizing this, and thank you, Dr. Bethany, for your excellent presentation.  Very quick question:  From your studies, it looks like 80 percent of Americans are more likely leaning towards mail-in voting.  And the President seems to not like this idea.  So can we deduct that mail-in voting will automatically favor Biden, and how?   

And the second question, a very quick one:  How the social media in this new normal will influence voters’ behavior?  Thank you. 

MS ALBERTSON:  Sure.  Historically, mail-in voting or vote-by-mail has not shown a partisan advantage.  We’ve had states use mail-in voting for years – states like Washington, which is a mainly Democratic state; states like Utah, which is a strongly Republican state.  And so we’ve seen a variety of states use mail-in voting for years, and we have limited evidence of a partisan advantage. 

Now, will we see a partisan advantage to mail-in voting this time?  I would expect so.  More Democrats intend to vote by mail.  Democrats are taking the threat of catching COVID more seriously, right, so there is good reasons to think that there will be a partisan advantage this time in terms of vote-by-mail and Democrats. 

I’m trying to think if there’s another layer to this answer.  The President distinguishes between absentee ballots and vote-by-mail, whereas most commentators, most observers of American elections say they’re the same thing.  I think what he’s objecting to is systems like California in which people are mailed ballots without requesting them, and so that’s a nuance to pay attention to.  And the other nuance, I think, is that there’s a lot of pressure or talk about voting early in this election because of the post office.  And so there’s been pressure to set up, and there has been drop boxes in various states to collect ballots so that one wouldn’t have to rely on the mail.  Yeah, and encouragement to vote early. 

MODERATOR:  Okay, thank you.  Do we have any other questions? 

QUESTION:  My second question was about — 

MODERATOR:  Oh, go ahead. 

QUESTION:  — the social media. 

MS ALBERTSON:  Oh, social media. 

QUESTION:  Yes. 

MS ALBERTSON:  Ooh.  You probably saw that Facebook has decided not to post – not to allow new political ads in the week before the election.  That’s interesting; that’s different for them.  But note that it doesn’t stop old political ads from being shown.  The argument – and they’ve always been very reluctant to police information; for many of us they’ve been a little too reluctant.  They say the difficulty with new ads in that last week is that there’s not enough time to counter false information.  And so no new ads one week before the election.  What it misses, though, is that people will be posting their own ideas, their own stories, their own – right, homemade.  It’s just restricting ads from the campaign itself.   

And so what do we know about social media?  It amplifies, it gives space for messages, perhaps false messages, perhaps conspiratorial messages to spread.  And so I think that election experts will be paying attention to messaging on Twitter, on Facebook, on what the kids are watching these days, which I am not always aware of.  We do know that Twitter has been more aggressive about labeling things as misinformation or as potentially inflammatory.  And so I’m interested to see how social media groups like Twitter, like Facebook, if they step it up even further as the election approaches. 

They will take down misinformation, right, messages that say the election is a day that it isn’t or that polling places are closed, those explicit pieces of misinformation that are meant to keep people from voting – they will police those. 

QUESTION:  Okay.  Thank you. 

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  Do we have any other questions, either virtual or in the chat box?  I did see we had a couple people who dialed in.  If there’s a question from those who have called in via phone, we will unmute you if you have a question.   

Okay.  If there are no further questions, then we will go ahead and wrap up the briefing.  On behalf of the Foreign Press Center, I do want to thank Dr. Albertson for sharing your expertise today.  We will share her presentation with all the participants, and the transcript and video will be posted on our website later today.  That’s all.  Good afternoon.   

MS ALBERTSON:  Thank you. 

U.S. Department of State

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