Ebola is at the top of the headlines. The elections are eleven days away. Therefore, the Law of Punditry dictates that political commentators must link these two stories together, forecasting that fears of the deadly virus will determine who controls Congress. Here's why they're completely wrong.
For a moment, let's flashback to 2012, when polling expert Nate Silver incurred the wrath of pundits by making predictions based upon statistical analysis as opposed to the finely tuned hunches of the Beltway intelligentsias. "I'm not very pro-pundit," Silver said in an interview with Stephen Colbert. "If pundits were on the ballot against, like, I don't know, Ebola, I might vote Ebola."
Little did he know that, two years later, Ebola and the pundits would become running mates.
In the last few weeks, the worst non-pandemic in U.S. history has spawned such news stories as:
- "Ebola is Spreading as a Midterm Campaign Issue" (Real Clear Politics)
- "Ebola is the 2014 Election's October Surprise" (Washington Post)
- "Ebola Is Officially the October Surprise of the 2014 Election" (ABC News)
- "Ebola Is a Midterm Issue, and It's Not Helping Democrats" (NBC News)
- "Ebola Becoming Issue In Key Senate Races" (USA Today)
- "Ebola Issue Poses Campaign Opportunities and Risks" (Roll Call)
- "Ebola Spreads to the Campaign Trail" (The Hill)
And that list doesn't even include television.
Among the pundits, two closely related themes have emerged.
The first is that Ebola is ratcheting-up existing feelings of anxiety among the U.S. public.
Eric Boehlert, a senior fellow at Media Matters for America, writes at the Huffington Post:
As Republicans seek to gain a partisan advantage by ginning up fear about the Ebola virus in preparation for the midterm election cycle, they're getting a major assist from the news media, which seem to be equally anxious to spread anxiety about the virus, and to implicate President Obama for the health scare. At times, Republicans, journalists, and commentators appear to be in complete sync as they market fear and kindle confusion.
And Chris Cillizza, the editor of "The Fix" at the Washington Post says:
Ebola is the October surprise of the 2014 midterms. That is, an unexpected event that has the potential to roil the electorate in all sorts of unpredictable ways.
More than four in ten people (43 percent) were worried about the possibility that they or someone in their immediate family might catch Ebola— including 20 percent who called themselves "very" worried in the Washington Post-ABC News poll….Those numbers will only go up ….Fear— and the anxiety that underlies it — are deeply personal and powerful emotions that, when parsed through the political process, can produce uncertain outcomes. What the nearly-certainly raised fears mean for the coming election is difficult to predict.
But here's my best sense: The country is as anxious and uncertain as it's been in a very long time. Much of that anxiety had been laid at the feet of a deeply uncertain economic situation (the broad indicators improving without much to show for it closer to the ground) and the turbulence abroad (the Islamic State, Russia, the Middle East, etc.)….Ebola— with its sky-high mortality rate and lack of a vaccine— dovetails perfectly with those existing fears and anxieties.
Within 24 hours of the publication of this column, I counted at least four media outlets that had picked up the phrase that Ebola is the "October Surprise of 2014"—which means that Cillizza's writing has a higher rate of transmission in the U.S. than Ebola itself.
But, more specifically, this column is an archetype of pundit prophesizing: A poll shows Americans worried about Ebola, the country is suddenly "as anxious and uncertain as it's been in a very long time," and while it's "difficult to predict" what effect this will have, his "best sense" is that the electorate is on the verge of a nervous breakdown.
As anxious and uncertain as it's been in a very long time. Has there ever been a time when the U.S. electorate wasn't anxious and uncertain? Here's a sampling of quotes gathered from news articles covering elections during the last two decades:
- "Many voters, particularly women, are anxious about what the future may hold." (1988)
- "Polls show that Americans are anxious about the future." (1992)
- "White male voters feel anxious about the future and see their incomes as stagnant." (1994)
- "Across America, workers and families feel anxious about their futures." (1996)
- "Voters are anxious about the future and more inclined to change the party in charge of the White House." (2000)
- "The nation is girding for tomorrow's presidential election….anxious about the future no matter who wins the contest" (2004)
"The current period is not unusual in generating anxiety," Darrel M. West, the Director of Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, tells me by email. And, regarding Ebola, "The sense of panic is localized to geographic areas and workers who have been exposed. If people are not living in Dallas or one of the other areas where there has been potential exposure, there isn't that much panic."
Indeed, some other data to consider: In mid-October, consumer sentiment rose to its highest level since 2007. Not exactly an indicator of mass panic, especially since the survey data was collected between September 25 and October 15—a period in which Americans had been barraged with news about Ebola in West Africa and its appearance in the United States.
And, as The Atlantic helpfully reminds us:
One in six people thinking they're about to die from Ebola is a serious matter. But you can get about approximately 20 percent of Americans to say all sorts of crazy things in anonymous polls. According to last year's Harris Interactive survey on spirituality, more than 40 percent of Americans believe in ghosts, 36 percent believe in UFOs, and 26 percent believe in witches. It seems safe to say that the United States does don't suffer from an epidemic of magical evil-doers, but until last week, Americans were far more likely to believe in witches than to worry about contracting Ebola.
Just as both Gallup and the Pew Research Center were reporting that Americans weren't too afraid of Ebola, the Washington Post reported that its own poll revealed a super-majority of the country is "concerned" about the "possibility" of the virus becoming widespread. Good news organizations are telling Americans the truth about Ebola while also inviting them to see panic as normal and mainstream.
Crisis of Confidence
The second theme we hear among the pundits is that Ebola is Obama's version of Hurricane Katrina—a reference to the public backlash against how George W. Bush handled that crisis, which began a precipitous decline in poll numbers from which he never recovered.
This version of events tells us that the public has lost all confidence in Obama and the Democratic Party.
Appearing on Face the Nation, USA Today's Susan Page said:
I think both these stories, the Ebola virus and the threat from ISIS are feeding into a sense that a lot of Americans have that the world is not only a dangerous place but that the government is not competent to handle them. Even the Secret Service controversy I think contributes to that sense. I think that's a very dangerous thing for President Obama, the sense that his administration is not competent to protect the American people that is the most fundamental job of a U.S. President.
Meanwhile, a column by Justin Sink, the White House correspondent for The Hill, was borderline apocalyptic:
The Ebola crisis in the United States has become an anchor threatening to sink the Obama presidency.
Democrats are expected to lose significant ground, in no small part due to public dissatisfaction with Obama and resilient questions about the president's competency.
And concessions from the White House and CDC that there were multiple "shortcomings" in the administration's response are only likely to deepen those fears.
The precipice on which the president now rests is eerily similar to the one that confronted former President George W. Bush at the same point in his term.
The former president, doomed by a series of political and policy missteps, became quickly viewed as incompetent, limiting his ability to govern effectively….the cumulative effect of careening through an unrelenting two years of crises, from the Department of Veterans Affairs to the Secret Service, has had a similar effect on perceptions of the president.
The CDC, in particular, has been singled out as the likely agent of the Democrats' downfall. The Washington Post reports that, in just one year, the public's view of the CDC has fallen from being one of the most competent federal agencies to being ranked below the Secret Service and just slightly more popular than the IRS.
And New York Times columnist Frank Brunl writes:
The CDC's missteps have much different implications from the errors made by the Secret Service and by Veterans Affairs. Individual Americans don't fear that the Secret Service's lapses will endanger them personally, and many of them aren't directly affected by the wrongdoing of hospitals for veterans. But they can imagine themselves on one of those flights or in some other closed space with an infected person. They feel vulnerable.
Because the Ebola response deepens doubt about the current government, it almost certainly hurts incumbents in the midterm elections and favors change. That's unhappy news for Democrats as they fight to retain control of the Senate
Again, some history is helpful here. Katrina wasn't the sole cause of Bush's downward spiral. He might well have recovered his popularity in the polls had the hurricane not been followed by three years of unrelenting bad news: the increasingly violent situation in post-war Iraq, the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the administration's failure to build support for the partial privatization of Social Security and the small matter of the U.S. economy collapsing.
As for the CDC, Brookings' Darrell West tells me:
The CDC has not been particularly adept at public communications over Ebola. But that is different from a general sense of crisis within the administration as a whole. Unemployment continues to drop and the government deficit has been cut in half. There are a number of things the government has done well even amidst concern over Ebola and ISIS. Declining trust in the CDC is not the same as mistrust of government itself. The latter has been high for 50 years and transcends particular presidents or administrations.
The Elections and Afterwards
To be sure, both Democrats and Republicans have tried to score some cheap points by evoking Ebola on the campaign trail. Some Democrats are blaming Republicans for the crisis, citing their "extreme, Tea Party" budget cuts to the National Institutes of Health. Republicans are attacking Obama's decision not to institute a travel ban on the African countries afflicted by Ebola.
But, by and large, Ebola has been a campaign talking point, not a defining campaign issue. "When the exit polls income in, voters most likely will have cast their ballots based on things such as the economy and war and peace issues," says West. "Those are the big issues that move voters and decide elections. Ebola is getting a lot of media attention, but it will not be decisive in many Senate elections."
What truly matters is what happens after election day—not only the ongoing efforts to contain Ebola, but a committed effort to take a candid, comprehensive look at our public health system to examine what mistakes were made and what should be done differently.
Such an assessment requires not only the opinions of federal agencies, but the health care providers who are on the front lines. Already, the American College of Emergency Physicians (ACEP) is urging policymakers to provide more resources for personal protective equipment and training for emergency care workers. In addition, the organization stated:
The response to Ebola should be regionalized, with emergency departments screening and identifying patients who are infected, and then transporting them to facilities specially equipped to care for them…Rapid identification of infected patients combined with a regional response will protect both patients and health care workers, in particular emergency physicians and nurses, from spreading the infection.
Emergency physicians are asking Congress to restore funding to the federal Hospital Preparedness Program, a program designed to help hospitals plan for emergencies….Funding to this program has been cut by 50 percent since 2003. In addition, all emergency departments need rapid "yes/no" testing for the Ebola virus in labs dedicated to identifying Ebola patients.
Rapid screening and identification are especially crucial and, according to Dr. Rade Vukmir— the founder of the ACEP Critical Care Medicine Section, and an adjunct professor of emergency medicine at Temple University—it's in keeping with the general trend in medicine during the last few years. "We've seen a push to identify more and empirically treat less," he tells me. "If you come to an emergency department with chest pains, they used to admit you to a hospital for a week. Now you come, we have rapid enzymatic testing, we've got available stress testing. We get people qualified early."
"The way to look at this is as an exciting time for development and thought," Vukmir adds. "A lot of times medicine is a process that A plus B = C. Now is one of those times when people need to think innovatively."