Candidates are trying to scare you. Don’t fall for it | Kathie Obradovich

Candidates who focus on fear want voters to act out of emotion, not information

It’s a spooky season on the campaign trail, as candidates work to stoke voters’ fears. (Screen shot from Reynolds-Gregg campaign ad with illustrations from Canva/Iowa Capital Dispatch).

By Kathie Obradovich

It’s the spooky season.

We love to be scared. Halloween decorations dot lawns across Des Moines. Over the weekend, I spotted a giant, inflatable baby on a north-side lawn with a mouth full of blood-smeared fangs. Magazines are full of directions for making cheese-cloth ghosts and punch-bowl ice in the shape of severed hands. Horror movies rake in hundreds of millions at the box office. Halloween spending is expected to reach a record $10.6 billion this year, according to the National Retail Federation.

Most of the time, it’s all in fun. It’s fake fright – we get a rush of adrenaline, perhaps, but no actual peril.

It’s also the season for fear on the campaign trail. Candidates are spending millions on attack ads that often feature dark, unflattering images of the opponent, alarming phrases in garish colors and voiceovers that sound like the grim narration of a true-crime show.

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Most of the claims in these sorts of ads are fake, too – or at least misleading — but nobody’s having fun. Except maybe the consultants, who are laughing all the way to the bank.

My home state of Iowa isn’t immune. Republican Rep. Ashley Hinson, for example, claimed her Democratic opponent, Liz Mathis, “supports government employees facilitating gender transitions for kids at school without their parents knowing.”

The ad refers to a transgender inclusion policy at Linn-Mar high school, which is about allowing teenagers to use the pronouns and restrooms of their choice. Children aren’t getting sex-change surgeries in the cafeteria, as the ad seems to imply. Perhaps they will get acceptance that is crucial to their mental health and that they may not get at home. Regardless of where you stand on the policy, though, it’s not an issue for Congress. It’s being raised in the campaign as a scare tactic.

Gov. Kim Reynolds also tells spooky stories in an effort to terrify parents, claiming Democrats want to “indoctrinate” children. “Indoctrinate” in this context, apparently means “teach them history” and “encourage them to be themselves and respect others.”

The prospect of Iowa schools treating kids like humans with some of their own agency may not be sufficiently chilling for all Iowa voters. So she and other Republicans are cranking up the scream machine with a tried-and-true tactic: An exaggerated focus on violent crime.

It worked for George H.W. Bush back in 1988, when the infamous Willie Horton ad inflamed racial fears. Reynolds borrows from that playbook in her recent TV ad by featuring a Black congresswoman from Missouri talking about defunding the police and then rolling alarming videos of mob violence – also in other states.

Iowa’s rates of violent crime and property crime are both low compared to other states. Even so, there was a spike here, along with the rest of the country, in homicide rates during the pandemic. Republicans want voters to believe, despite evidence to the contrary, that the increase was tied to anti-police rhetoric, liberal criminal justice reform policies and weak, Democratic prosecutors.

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The Brennan Center found that murder rates in 2020 and 2021 were roughly equal in cities run by Republicans as those run by Democrats, and that some “red” states had the highest homicide rates. One factor that likely did fuel the increase was a record surge of firearm-related violence in 2020, bolstered by 4.3 million “excess firearm purchases nationally” between March and July 2020.

But Iowa Republicans want more firearms on the streets, not less. That’s why voters will be asked to amend the state constitution to create higher legal barriers to restrictions on firearm ownership and use.

You won’t see any of that context amid the images of rioting and arson in campaign ads. Candidates who focus on fear want voters to act out of emotion, not information.


Kathie Obradovich is the editor of the Iowa Capital Dispatch, a sibling site of the Pennsylvania Capital-Star, where this story first appeared.

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Capital-Star Guest Contributor
Capital-Star Guest Contributor

The Pennsylvania Capital-Star welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation on how politics and public policy affects the day-to-day lives of people across the commonwealth.