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How Ebola became a partisan issue

The CDC's suddenly-controversial director
The CDC's suddenly-controversial director
Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Ebola seems about as far removed from partisan politics as you can imagine. It's a horrifying and incurable disease that has reached the United States for the first time. People are, naturally, alarmed. But there's no real pro or con argument to be had about Ebola, and Ebola has nothing to do with the main fault lines in American politics.

Nonetheless, we already have conservative pundit Jonathan Last speculating that the US government response is being driven by President Obama's alleged commitment to open borders ideology, while Ross Douthat plays sensible conservative by knocking this down. Chris Cillizza has even decided that the disease "is 2014's October surprise."

There's something to this: even really and truly non-political issues have political consequences.

A 2012 paper by Larry Bartels and Christopher Achen details a phenomenon they label "Blind Retrospection," and offers a deep dive into the political consequences of a wave of shark attacks that happened on the Jersey Shore in the summer of 1916. Looking at Woodrow Wilson's 1916 re-election bid, Bartels and Achen show that Wilson's vote fell by about 10 percentage point in shark-afflicted communities relative to where it otherwise would have been. This is a huge impact — it's larger, for instance, than the gap between Michael Dukakis' performance in 1988 and Obama's landslide win twenty years later.

Andrew Healy, Neil Malhorta, and Cecilia Hyunjung Mo showed in a 2010 paper that college football performance also affects voting behavior. Specifically, a win by the local team "causes the incumbent to receive an additional 1.61 percentage points of the vote in Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential elections." And the magnitude of the effect gets larger magnitude as the local team gets more popular — suggesting the result is unlikely to be mere coincidence. They also discovered that unexpected wins in the 2009 NCAA basketball tournament were associated with localized upsurges in presidential approval.

It's not just that politics makes us stupid. Sometimes stupid judgments change our politics — we have the tendency to treat all bad events as reflecting poorly on whoever happens to be in power.

Viewed in this context, the emergence of Ebola as a partisan issue becomes less surprising. Hemorrhagic fevers may have nothing to do with American politics as conventionally construed, but unlike college football games, they do have a clear relationship to the legitimate functions of government.

Ebola is just political enough to serve as a perfect storm of derp — it is frightening and it is bad and it is souring views of the incumbent and people who want to use it to justify their ideological preconceptions will find a way. Brendan Nyhan notes that while Republicans are much more skeptical than Democrats that the federal government is adequately prepared for Ebola, the partisan valence was reversed back in 2006 when George W Bush was in office.

Last doesn't like Obama and he doesn't like Ebola, so he's decided — contrary to evidence and expert opinion — that travel bans would be a good idea. And since Last doesn't like Obama's immigration policy, he's decided that Obama's opposition to a travel ban stems from his misguided ideas about immigration. Had Obama implemented a travel ban, Last would still dislike Obama and perhaps slam the president for ignoring expert advice.

Were a Republican in the White House, liberals would be slamming him for the lack of a travel ban. Why can't president Romney see the obvious? Is he that in hock to free trade ideology? So deeply wedded to the financial interests of the airline industry? Something about oil? (It's always really about oil). In the real world, not everything is about politics. But in our minds, it is — whether it's a virus or a shark attack or a March Madness upset.