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How fear-based campaigning is affecting American voters

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? We hear from some of them, and Lisa Desjardins reports on the conscious political strategy of scaring voters into a particular point of view.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    If you have found that this election is increasing your anxiety, that may be more than a sign of the times. It could be the result of a conscious political strategy to scare you into a point of view.

    Our Lisa Desjardins reports on the use of fear in the 2020 campaign.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Beneath the 2020 fight, an aggressive undercurrent.

  • President Donald Trump:

    No one will be safe in Biden's America.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Fear, used especially by President Donald Trump, making alarmist, extreme claims.

  • President Donald Trump:

    No city, town, or suburb will be safe.

    There's tremendous violence.

    If you want to save democracy from the mob, then you must vote.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But the president is not alone.

  • Vice President Joseph Biden:

    Remember seeing those neo-Nazis and Klansmen and white supremacists coming out of the fields with lighted torches, veins bulging?

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There is near pervasive talk of threats to your community, your race, to you.

    What does all this use of fear do? What does it mean to voters? We asked on social media, and thousands of people responded. They surprised us with the intensity of their fears related to this election.

  • Jacqueline Arnold:

    I'm concerned that my neighborhood would be targeted or my town would be targeted.

  • Stephanie Bolton:

    I'm a breast cancer survivor, so preexisting condition coverage is a huge deal for me.

  • Carl Chase:

    No matter who wins between whoever gets the election, gets the nomination, the other side is just going to be mad and just express that anger in very violent ways.

  • Brian Fencl:

    We might get to a point where they just can't function at all, and it just — the whole system comes crashing down.

  • Christina Anuszeweski:

    I fear, a lot of fear for the future of my kids.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    These fears are not being expressed in a vacuum. It is happening amid fear-based campaigning, including ads like this one supporting President Trump that tells voters they will not be safe.

  • Dan Gardner:

    I think it is fair to say that, this election, it's truly spectacular, the extent to which politicians are making fear-based messages. And when I say politicians, I, of course, mean Donald Trump.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Dan Gardner is the author of "Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear."

    He says both presidential campaigns are using fear, 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, including implied fears of other races and people not like you, like in July, when he spoke of low-income housing.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Your home will go down in value and crime rates will rapidly rise.

    Suburbia will be no longer as we know it.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    In truth, times are good in most U.S. suburbs, with years of income growth and safety. But Gardner says fear can override the reality, because it works on a primal level.

  • Dan Gardner:

    We're hard-wired to give priority to information about threat. 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.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Gardner says scary ads or speeches are affecting you, even if you think they aren't.

  • Dan Gardner:

    So, when you see a political ad, and they show you images of a stranger at the door going to knock at it and do God knows what to the innocent person inside, it's going to convince a part of your brain that there is a real threat.

    But they tend to think that their thinking, uniquely among all human beings, isn't influenced by those biases.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    So, in other words, people believe that everyone else is at risk for being manipulated by fear, but they don't believe that they are.

  • Dan Gardner:

    Exactly.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The fear-based ads are many, like this one from Biden's campaign.

  • Narrator:

    If Donald Trump gets rid of our health care law, my son won't be protected.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    And this from President Trump's campaign.

  • Narrator:

    You have reached the 911 police emergency line. Due to defunding of the police department, we're sorry, but no one is here to take your call.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    To some, ads like that about a world where police have no funding are manipulative and false, but, to others, they are important and effective.

  • Kim Alfano:

    It was just on target and one of the best ads I have seen in a long time.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Kim Alfano is a Republican strategist and ad maker. She says that Trump campaign ad really resonated with her, that, of course, campaigns use fear. For them, it's a powerful tool to point out what could be ahead.

  • Kim Alfano:

    The fear is bound to happen, because we're — that's the way we talk these days. And it's ugly and it's awful. And I wish we didn't. But we do.

    And my job and anybody in politics' job is, we believe that we need to win the race, because it's what's good for the country, or else we wouldn't do it. I think it's our job to expose the stakes. And if that means exposing the fears, then, yes, we absolutely have to do that.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But what does fear do to voters? It can raise passion, but it also can numb people, overload them, and it can depress emotions and turnout.

  • Man:

    New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The scale and intensity may be new.

  • President Donald Trump:

    Biden will road turned Minnesota into a refugee camp.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    But this use of fear is not. During the Great Depression, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt famously rallied the country, not by using fear, but by naming it as the enemy.

  • Former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt :

    That the only we have to fear is fear itself.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    This brings us back to 2020.

    What do voters do with all this fear? Those we spoke with called it out. They say they know campaigns are trying to manipulate them. But that is stoking other emotions.

  • Christina Anuszeweski:

    It makes me angry, because it makes me feel like they think we're stupid. You know, like we know that's not what it's going to be like if Joe Biden becomes president, or the streets aren't going to be on fire.

  • Jacqueline Arnold:

    It makes me distrust them even more.

  • Carl Chase:

    That's a big turnoff for me, huge turnoff. I think that, instead of focusing on solutions, they're just focusing on the problem.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    The 2020 race for the White House is about America's problems, but it's also about the politics of fear.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Lisa Desjardins.

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