Will Trump’s COVID-19 infection influence voter behaviour?

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Donald Trump

While the world follows the progression of Donald Trump’s illness, how will the news impact on the US voter emotions and behaviour?

A study, conducted by NayaDaya Inc., YouGov, and Statista in September, revealed the emotions and behaviour of US voters evoked by the election of Donald Trump and Mike Pence or Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

The most chosen emotion among the US citizens for Trump’s election was disengaging disgust. To choose that emotion, the respondent feels that some moral standards have been violated. Moreover, according to our scientific behaviour matrix, Joe Biden can create more positive engagement among Americans (45 % loyal to Biden vs. 32 % loyal to Trump). However, his lead is based on relief, which is only slightly engaging emotion that indicates an avoidance of a threat. Among the voters who are not in favour of Democrats or Republicans, the candidates are more close (37 % loyal to Biden vs. 31 % loyal to Trump).

Compassion may help Trump

If Trump’s coronavirus infection changes the way people feel about him, the expected behaviour for his re-election may also change. It is obvious that Trump’s illness arouses at least some compassion – an emotion that we feel when we notice the suffering of others. The sicker Trump gets, the more he evokes compassion.

Compassion creates positive, engaged behaviour and a desire to help those who are in distress. In the original study, the amount of compassion for Trump was low. If this compassion grows, especially among the voters who are not in favour of Democrats or Republicans, positive consequences for Trump’s election may be significant.

The more Trump reveals his vulnerability, the more he receives compassion and creates engaging, positive behaviour that could help him to be re-elected.

However, the situation is more complicated since Trump’s illness evokes probably other emotions as well. There may be more fear than before: Is Trump capable of handling his duties? What if the worst-case scenario comes true? Uncertainty may drive voters, especially among the voters with no party preference, toward relief and Biden – or Pence. Is Pence strong enough to keep the fears and uncertainties under control?

And there may be other feelings as well, even sarcastic amusement. Many people may think that Trump is the victim of his own coronavirus policy. Sarcastic amusement may be a result of disgust, contempt, and hate. These emotions lead to negative behaviour: disengagement or engaged resistance. Both behaviour patterns work against Trump’s re-election.

Relief gives Biden only a short lead

As said before, Biden’s emotional and behavioural lead is based on relief, avoiding the undesirable (Trump’s re-election) from happening. If U.S. voters think that Trump is not capable of performing his duties and has no strength to fight, and if Biden will not get sick, the relief for Biden’s election may become even stronger.

The risk for Biden may be that the impact of relief on engaged behaviour is fairly weak. If voters, especially those who do not have any clear party preference, feel relief for the assumption that Biden’s winning is now clear, they might not actively engage in voting – and hence, cause a significant effect on the election outcome.

Harris and Pence rising now to the spotlight

Due to Trump’s illness and depending on its severity, the role of the VP candidates will inevitably strengthen. In this new situation, the fact that Kamala Harris stands out from the other candidates through her ability to create most positive, engaging emotions, may have even crucial impact on the election.

According to the study, Harris is especially strong among the young voters between 18-34 (loyal to Harris 40 % vs. loyal to Pence 19 %), the black voters (loyal to Harris 54 % vs. loyal to Pence 11 %), and people with annual income under $40k (loyal to Harris 40 % vs. loyal to Pence 21 %).

Mike Pence is a kind of Trump’s shadow; he evokes even more disgust but overall, less emotions. In order to beat Harris and the team Biden, he should now strive to create emotions like compassion, admiration, and pride. At least he should generate relief – to show that he is a person Americans can trust in the midst of all the uncertainty.

In the light of this, the TV debate between Harris and Pence will be remarkably interesting: Will Pence rise from Trump’s shadow? The stakes are high – the emotional impact of Pence vs. Harris may even determine the outcome of the election.

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