Rep. Timothy Murphy (R-Pa.) makes an opening statement as he chairs a House Energy and Commerce Committee subcommittee hearing on the U.S. public health response to the Ebola outbreak Oct. 16 in  Washington. Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Polls before the midterm elections showed partisan patterns in citizens’ attitudes and concerns about Ebola in America. Pew Research found in its mid-October poll a rise in concern about Ebola since its early October poll, but that rise was particularly striking among Republicans, leaving a thirteen-point gap between Republicans (49 percent) and Democrats (36 percent) who were worried they would be exposed to the Ebola virus.

The Ebola outbreak has generated a great deal of anxiety, and this anxiety could have political ramifications for civil liberties moving forward. Results from another October poll by YouGov show a partisan divide in opinions about response to Ebola. While 65 percent of Democrats thought the U.S. government should quarantine people who had recently been in a West African country with a major Ebola outbreak, 79 percent of Republicans favored a quarantine. Responding to a similar question in the same poll, 25 percent of Democrats and 8 percent of Republicans said the U.S. government should allow entry to people from a West African country with a major Ebola outbreak.

To what can we attribute the partisan divide on concern about Ebola and attitudes toward Ebola response?

The same October YouGov poll shows partisan differences in opinion on the role played by the media. While 46 percent of Democrats thought the media made the Ebola epidemic seem worse than it was, only 26 percent of Republicans thought the same. But it’s not clear we can attribute all of the partisan gap in attitudes toward Ebola to the media.

Also important in framing the Ebola outbreak and the subsequent government response are the lawmakers disseminating information about Ebola. What, if any, partisan patterns can we find in their political communication strategies?

Using an originally collected dataset of official e-newsletters from every U.S. representative and senator who uses these communications (more than 90 percent of the members of Congress do), I find there is no significant partisan difference on who decides to set up and send out e-newsletters. However, there are oftentimes differences in focus and language used within the e-newsletters.

Since Aug. 6 — the first mention of Ebola in any official congressional e-newsletters on the recent outbreak — there have been 325 messages on Ebola from representatives and senators to their constituents.  The uptick of communications started  Sept. 12.

In total, there were 1,618 official e-newsletters sent between Sept. 12 and Nov. 10. That means roughly 20 percent of all e-newsletter communications during the past two months called attention to Ebola.  For comparison, in this same time period only 10 percent of official communications referenced Obamacare, 10 percent referenced immigration and one percent referenced marijuana.


Of all messages sent referencing Ebola, a whopping 82 percent are from Republicans. What accounts for this greater response  from Republicans?

Number of E-newsletters Mentioning Ebola Overtime, by Party. Data: Official E-newsletters and World Health Organization; Figure: Lindsey Cormack

First, Republicans account for about 56 percent of Congress so the fact that more messages about Ebola come from Republicans than Democrats should not come as a surprise. A fairer way to assess the partisan nature of contacting constituents is to look at the ratio of Ebola messages sent over the total number of messages sent.

Second, Republicans send more messages than Democrats. In the past two months, 69 percent of all e-newsletters have a Republican author. Even after accounting for differences in total amounts of e-newsletters sent, however, Republicans are nearly 2.5 times more likely to write to constituents about Ebola than Democrats. That is, on average messages sent by Republicans reference Ebola 24 percent of the time, while messages sent by Democrats only reference Ebola 10 percent of the time.

There are also interesting partisan differences in the temporal patterns of e-newsletters referencing Ebola. The image below shows the smoothed trend of the percentage of e-newsletters by party that mention Ebola. Nearly half of all Republican messages were about Ebola in the two weeks preceding the midterm elections, followed by a precipitous decline. Compare this to a more gradual ascension and lower peak for Democrats’ e-newsletters referencing Ebola.


Percentage of all E-Newsletters Referencing Ebola Over Time, by Party. Data: Official E-newsletters; Figure: Lindsey Cormack

These analyses only include five days of observation following the midterms, but comparing the average percentage of e-newsletters referring to Ebola by party, there is evidence consistent with a theory of Republican fear-mongering. On average, on any given day in the two months before the election, 28 percent of Republican e-newsletters refer to Ebola compared to just 8 percent after the election. The corresponding Democratic figures are 11 percent pre-election and 7 percent post election.

Can we attribute the greater response by Republican lawmakers to the fact that members of the overwhelmingly Republican Texas delegation account for the majority of Ebola messages, given the first Ebola diagnosis on U.S. soil was in Dallas? When looking at the list of lawmakers who sent the most e-newsletters referencing Ebola, it’s not overwhelmingly made up of Texas lawmakers. The top Ebola-referencing legislators were:

1.) Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.)  – 10 Ebola e-newsletters
2.) Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) – 8
3.) Rep. Joe Pitts (R-Pa.) – 7
3.) Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) – 7
3.) Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) – 7
6.) Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) – 5
6.) Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) – 5
6.) Rep. Timothy Murphy (R-Pa.) – 5
6.) Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.) – 5

The official communications examined here are consistent with a theory that recent Ebola anxiety was driven by partisan politics. Official congressional communications regarding Ebola came overwhelming from Republicans, with most from unaffected states/districts and there was a precipitous decline in mentions after the election.

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Lindsey Cormack is a visiting assistant professor Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. She maintains a database of all official congressional e-newsletters, summaries of which can be found at the Twitter feed @CongressSaysWha.