How the COVID-19 Pandemic Helped Biden Win the 2020 Presidential Primaries

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Aleena Khan, covers the new article by James Bisbee, NYU, United States and Dan Honig, University College London, United Kingdom,Flight to Safety: COVID-Induced Changes in the Intensity of Status Quo Preference and Voting Behavior”.

The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has been an unprecedented public health crisis that has infected over 180 million and taken the lives of over four million. Political leaders across the globe raced to curb the spread of the virus, implementing policies and guidelines for social distancing, mask-wearing, and sanitation practices. The complete upheaval of lives and the threat of the virus led to anxieties among many Americans and people around the world. Scholars James Bisbee and Dan Honig examine, in their new American Political Science Review article, how these anxieties impacted the fortunes for political leaders running for office during the pandemic. Using a variety of methods, including a survey experiment and observational studies, they find that people practice a “flight to safety,” during crises, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, voting for candidates who promise to preserve the status quo, rather than disrupt it.

During times of crises Bisbee and Honig argue that anxieties among the public often lead voters to penalize more radical, and thus “riskier” political candidates, benefiting mainstream candidates. They test their theory in four major ways, examining voter turnout in: (1) the United States 2020 Democratic primary elections, (2) the French 2020 municipal elections, (3) testing whether anxiety produced these effects by using an online survey experiment on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) platform in 2020, and (4) exploring the public’s Google searches about the virus from December 30th, 2019, to April 30th, 2020. Using each of these methods, they show that through anxiety, the COVID-19 pandemic shifted the public’s preferences to support candidates that aimed to preserve the status quo rather than implement radical change.

For the first analysis, Bisbee and Honig collected county-level voter turnout from David Leip’s Atlas of the United States and county-level spread of COVID-19 from the New York Times. Assuming Joe Biden represented “safety” and Bernie Sanders represented “disruption” in the context of the 2020 Democratic primaries, they compared voter turnout for each of these candidates across counties. Recognizing that the coronavirus is not the only factor that would have influenced Democratic primary voter’s decisions, they tested four different alternative explanations using various statistical methods to isolate the effects of COVID-19 on voters’ Democratic primary decisions.

“Together, the results provide support for their theory of a substantial “political flight to safety” during times of anxiety-producing crises.” The results of their first analysis suggested that areas that were more exposed to the coronavirus were 2% to 15% less supportive of Sanders, after March 17th (which was after a national emergency was declared in the US). To test whether it was in fact, anxiety, that produced the public’s preferences for Biden over Sanders, they examined the US public’s daily Google searches. They found that the public searched for coronavirus as well as other anxiety-associated words, such as “symptoms,” “cases,” “update,” and “tips.” These searches were especially common for those living in exposed areas. By March 10th (which was shortly after an outbreak on a cruise ship off the California coast), these searches became widespread. These results are consistent with the argument that anxiety is the emotion that influenced the vote choice of the public. They tested their argument that the pandemic influenced vote choice further using a survey experiment on MTurk, where they randomly assigned participants to read a summary of a potential future course for the pandemic (either an anxiety-relieving or an anxiety-inducing assessment). Then, they asked participants to choose between two hypothetical candidates for the presidency that varied in terms of age, occupation, education, policy platform, and whether the candidate was radical (anti-establishment) or moderate (mainstream). They find an increased preference for the mainstream candidate and these results hold even when compared to an anti-establishment candidate with a platform centered on healthcare reform.

Finally, they examined whether their findings hold outside of the United States by collecting department-level data on COVID-19 cases and municipal election results in France. After categorizing parties along the political spectrum, they compared voter turnout for each of these parties between March and June 2020. They found that parties that were not mainstream were penalized more, by almost 10% of a reduction in relative votes, especially in areas where COVID-19 was more widespread.

Together, the results provide support for their theory of a substantial “political flight to safety” during times of anxiety-producing crises. Their findings imply that anxiety can have important political consequences, especially if the political strength of radical political movements can be a source of that public anxiety. We are then left with the question: can anti-establishment candidates and parties do anything to ease public anxieties? Bisbee and Honig leave it up to future researchers to find out.

  • Aleena Khan is a PhD student in American Politics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her research interests include political identity, political behavior, political communication, and political psychology. Aleena’s research involves investigating Americans’ perceptions of anti-Americanism and the consequences of those perceptions for Americans’ policy preferences toward outgroups, particularly Muslims. Outside of her studies, Aleena works to promote a positive department culture and support her fellow graduate students as part of her departments’ graduate student association and she is also involved in her local community, Urbana-Champaign, where she currently serves as a youth mentor.
  • BISBEE, JAMES, and DAN HONIG. “Flight to Safety: COVID-Induced Changes in the Intensity of Status Quo Preference and Voting Behavior.American Political Science Review, 2021, 1–17
  • About the APSA Public Scholarship Program.