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Campus Political Science Experts Say Fear Drives Voters

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Viewers awaiting Donald Trump’s next sound bite won’t likely be disappointed by tonight’s (Dec. 15) final GOP debate, in Las Vegas. He, and other would-be Republican nominees will likely try to quell fears of terrorist attacks — like those in Paris, days after the last debate, and in San Bernardino more recently.

 Ted Cruz and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie hope to build on recent surges in polls. Trump is expected to tout his push to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States. And, while there’s still no frontrunner for the party’s nomination, the candidates’ response to fear could be a deciding factor.

Fear resonates with voters, said Stephen Stambough, CSUF professor of political science.

“They’re tapping into fear of all kinds of things,” Stambough said. Fear for safety is one, he added. “When terrorist events take place, people always look for someone who conveys confidence.

“Hillary Clinton comes across strong in terms of experience and expertise. She doesn’t come across as approachable or nice, which, I think, helps her in this environment,” he said.

And Trump’s tactic? “He’s just bombastic,” Stambough said. “When people are afraid, what they want to do is lash out, and he’s lashing out for them.”

Voters are looking ahead to the primary elections. General election predictions have grown stale, said Matthew Jarvis, associate professor of political science.

“There’s a recent book called ‘The Party Decides’ that would suggest that ‘the party favorite’ will win. Every day that goes by with Trump, (Ben) Carson and Cruz at the top, and (Marco) Rubio and (Jeb) Bush way behind, is a day that we get closer to that argument being wrong, which would be really fascinating,” said Jarvis.

CSUF faculty and students also are looking ahead.

Spring courses for political science students include classes focused on campaigns and elections, political parties and American government. A Town Hall event will be held in late April or May and political consultants from both parties will speak to students about campaign structure and how candidates use emotion to appeal to voters.

Classroom discussions will likely include how media and technology continues to change politicians’ messages. Trump, for example, uses Twitter as a press conference, said Stambough.

“It was always possible for candidates to go on alternative media and late night shows. That goes back to (Richard) Nixon on ‘Laugh-In,’” he added. But with short, scripted messages, on social media, candidates like Trump shift from a policy message.

“They personalize and humanize themselves, and the message becomes more candidate-centered politics rather than party politics,” Stambough said.  

Still not a fan of Trump’s biting style?

Electability changes with each stage of an election, Stambough said.  Before anyone votes, credibility, name recognition and prior political office play a role. Media presence nationally and locally help. But endorsements lead to funds, and money matters, he said.

“In previous eras we’ve always had candidates like Trump, and parties have been able to coalesce and beat down the candidates,” he said. “But money makes it possible to stay in the race, while social media outlets give an opportunity to reach the public directly without any kind of a filter. And he definitely doesn’t have a filter.”