A small but vocal group of Republicans continues to oppose voting by mail on the grounds that it’s somehow bad for the GOP. As a Republican operative myself, I hope they will soon realize their assumption is dead wrong.
Generally speaking, voting by mail has proven to have no partisan impact on election outcomes. But in a pandemic — when a single cough can infect dozens of people — it might be more likely to help Republicans. The reason: disgust.
Disgust is a powerful emotion, and conservatives tend to feel it more than liberals. Numerous studies have shown a correlation between conservative political preferences and greater sensitivity to disgust. When presented with a disgusting image or scenario, conservatives’ reactions are generally stronger and more negative than liberals’. This differential could have an effect in the 2020 election, as conservative voters confront the disgusting possibility of voting in person during a pandemic.
A lot of them just won’t do it. Not if the virus persists. The shared booths, shared pens, shared voting machines, shared air — it’s all just too gross. Conservatives will experience great sensitivity to these disgusting conditions, potentially causing more Republicans to stay home than Democrats.
This prediction is consistent with the studies. In one review, researchers found that conservatives were more concerned with “avoiding contamination.” The study asked people to rate their disgust with scenarios like, “You take a sip of soda, and then realize that you drank from the glass that an acquaintance of yours had been drinking from.” Another prompt asked people to rate their agreement with: “‘I never let any part of my body touch the toilet seat in a public washroom.” Results showed that desire to avoid contamination was strongly associated with political conservatism.
Many of the disgust studies have specifically looked at cleanliness and fear of disease. One found that politically conservative undergrads had cleaner, tidier rooms with more cleaning supplies on hand. This behavior relates to the origins of disgust, which some social psychologists believe evolved from a desire to protect ourselves from dangerous pathogens. We are the descendants of those who survived the previous plagues.
How might conservatives’ concern with cleanliness and “avoiding contamination” impact GOP turnout in 2020? If people can vote by mail from the safety of their homes, it won’t hurt turnout at all. But if a few misguided Republicans succeed in making it harder to vote by mail, expect a net decrease in ballots for Trump.
Will fear of the virus cause some Biden supporters to stay home? Sure. But on balance, the disease has more potential to suppress Republican votes. Not only are conservatives more likely to be personally disgusted by the germs, Republican voters are also on average older and therefore more at risk from COVID-19 and more likely to be subject to shelter-in-place orders.
It might seem odd that so many “conservatives” are protesting in the streets right now if they’re more prone to disgust. But their whole message is that they don’t believe in the virus. They think it’s fake news. Trump told them so for weeks, and it’s clearly proven impossible to un-ring that bell while China, Russia, and others are busy stoking conspiracies on social media.
While Trump finally changed his tune in press briefings mid-March, his Twitter feed has remained more than a little conspiratorial, urging people to “liberate” themselves from lockdowns in a few states (which all just happened to be Democrat-tilted battlegrounds key to the Electoral College).
Keep in mind that the lockdown protesters are a small fraction of Republicans voters. They generate more media than the conservatives quietly staying home. For every protester screaming in the face of a healthcare worker, there are thousands of Republicans, including my southern Trump-supporting family members, who absolutely will not visit a voting booth during a pandemic any more than they’ll be booking a trip to Wuhan.
If Republicans endorse vote-by-mail and expanded absentee voting, they’ll be doing the right thing. And they might just see a shift in their favor because of conservative psychology. The problem for Republicans currently is that they’re blocking their most favorable voters by requiring in-person voting at a shrinking number of voting locations with longer lines. Before we predict how people might vote, we first have to consider whether they will choose to vote at all.
Wise up, fellow Republicans. If you insist on viewing the issue of ballot access through the cynical lens of partisan advantage, then you should support vote-by-mail. Republicans have never faced an election where voting is disgusting. We need to make it easy for people to vote from their safe, clean, sanitized homes. Otherwise, it’s likely fewer Republican voters will cast ballots this fall.