How The Media Helped The GOP Sell Their Fear-Based Appeal

Forget the issues. Let's talk about fear and anger.

That message, coming out of a CNN interview with Vice President Joe Biden, perfectly captures the media's role in the 2014 midterm elections.

Biden and Gloria Borger, CNN's chief political analyst, discussed the VP's future political ambitions and his take on whether the 2014 midterms will shift the balance of power in Washington in an interview that aired this morning.

“If you look at every single major issue in this campaign, the American public agree with our position,” Biden said, “from federal support for infrastructure to minimum wage to marriage equality.”

Biden is right, and the numbers are staggering. Seventy percent of Americans support increasing the minimum wage to $10.10 per hour, according to the results of a CBS News/New York Times poll from September. When Gallup asked whether voters would be more likely to support candidates who want to spend federal government money on infrastructure repairs, 72 percent said they would. Polling from ABCNews/Washington PostThe New York Times/CBS News, and McClatchy-Marist all shows majority support for marriage equality. Add universal background checks and federal action to combat climate change to the growing list of progressive issues backed by large majorities of the electorate.

“But wait a minute,” Borger injected:

Our polls show voters are angry, they're fearful, they're frustrated. Not only about domestic policy, like the roll out of the president's health care reform, but also on the handling of Ebola and ISIS. So the question is how do you fix that?

It's true that a recent CNN poll found that voters are scared and angry -- when they are asked by pollsters how scared and angry they are. That poll, incidentally, didn't ask what issues matter most to voters.

All of this feeds right into the GOP electoral strategy of using fear-based appeals to sway voters.

“With four weeks to go before the midterm elections, Republicans have made questions of how safe we are -- from disease, terrorism or something unspoken and perhaps more ominous -- central in their attacks against Democrats,” The New York Times reported in October.

Since that time, CNN discussed the minimum wage on 35 broadcasts and mentioned unemployment or economic growth during 52 broadcasts, according to a Nexis search. Ebola appears in 565 news transcripts during that time. Even factoring in CNN's international broadcasting, it would hard to find an hour of news programming that didn't feed into Ebola panic in the past 4 weeks.  

And it's not just CNN. Throughout the closing weeks of the election, news media have gone into overdrive helping Republican sow the seeds of Ebola panic.

Voters, meanwhile, are 11 times more likely to say that jobs and the economy are one of the most important issues heading into the economy than they are to cite Ebola.

Nevertheless, Borger was congratulated by her CNN colleagues for forcing Biden off a discussion of issues like raising the minimum wage.

“He had listed that laundry list, that grocery list of items and you pushed him off that, you were right to,” New Day host Chris Cuomo said. “Because it's all about the perception of whether or not there's been leadership on the key issues, not the positions.”  

By defining the problem as one of perception, CNN lets Republicans off the hook for blocking massively popular policies like raising the minimum wage or establishing universal background checks on firearms sales.

Discussing her interview with Biden, Borger warned that Democrats would need to reconsider whether they spent enough time talking about the economy this election cycle. That would be a reasonable critique had Borger not just made sure the conversation was centered around fear and anger:

They're going to have to have the discussion about whether they had a campaign with a bunch of themes, which I would argue they didn't, and what they can talk about. Should they have been talking about the economy, as Joe Biden was trying to talk about, or did they let the message get out of control on other items? Lots of Republicans are running on fear.

And lots of media outlets are lending them a helping hand.