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Lesson Plans

How fear-based campaigning is affecting American voters

October 20, 2020

Full Lesson



Directions: Read the summary, watch the video featuring NewsHour’s Lisa DesJardins and answer the discussion questions. To read the transcript of the video above, click here

Summary: This year’s election is raising anxiety levels across the country. Why are so many Americans feeling stressed and fearful as the presidential campaigns enter their final sprint?  

  • Dan Gardner is the author of “Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear.” He says both presidential campaigns are using fear, with former Vice President Joe Biden focusing on fear of Mr. Trump.
  • But Gardner says it is the president who is using the tactic the most. Trump’s tactics include implied fears of other races and people not like you, such as in his now common campaign pitch that low-income and minority people will “destroy” the suburbs if Biden is elected.
  • According to Gardner, people are “hard-wired to give priority to information about” threats and dangers. “We will always prioritize negative information. So we will notice it first, we will remember it longer, and it will be more influential in our subsequent decision-making than will other information.”


Warm up questions: Have your students identify the 5Ws and an H:

    • Who is the story about?
    • What is an “attack ad”?
    • When and where are the presidential candidates using fear-based attacks on their opponent?
    • Why are fear-based attacks effective, according to Dan Gardner?
    • How do politicians justify using the “politics of fear”?

Then have students share with the class or through a Learning Management System (LMS).

Focus questions:

  1. Do you think negative ads about candidates by political opponents sway voters more than positive ads made by candidates about themselves? Explain.
  2. What do you think Dan Gardner means when he says people are “hard-wired” to respond to ads that play on their fears?
  3. How do you feel when you see a negative ad about a candidate you support? How about a candidate you do not support?

Media literacy: This story claims that “both sides” use fear as a campaign strategy, though it also claims that Trump’s campaign is using “them most.” How do you think you could measure or test the claim that one campaign uses fear more than the other, or uses it a more damaging way?

Dig deeper:

  1. Use this lesson about campaign ads to explore how presidential campaigns are trying to influence voters this election.
    • Ask your students, what elements of threat or fear are present in these ads?
  2. Use this lesson to further understand the difference between attack ads and biographical ads, analyze current ads this cycle and have students make their own campaign ads!


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