Wednesday's news that not only had a second health-care worker in Dallas been infected with the Ebola virus but that she had also traveled on a commercial airliner the night before showing up at the hospital with a low-grade fever takes the story -- and its potential political impact -- to an entirely new level.
Yes, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention insists that the likelihood of transmitting Ebola -- even while on board an airplane -- is extremely low. And, yes, the only two cases of Ebola that have been confirmed in the past week are from health-care workers who have been in direct contact with Thomas Eric Duncan, the Liberian man who died from the illness at that Dallas hospital.
But the idea that a woman -- who less than 24 hours later was admitted to the hospital with Ebola -- was traveling on a Frontier Airlines jet with 132 people is just the sort of thing that forces a re-calculation, by the public and the politicians who serve them, of the situation. Why? Because everyone has been on a plane. And many people travel weekly, if not daily. The idea that someone who was on the verge of coming down with Ebola could have been breathing the same air as you for a few hours -- no matter what your rational mind knows about how difficult Ebola is to transmit -- is scary.
That worry is compounded by the fact that most people -- me included -- are agog at the fact that a woman who had dealt directly with Duncan was allowed to travel on a commercial flight while still under observation for the possibility of developing Ebola, a concern that will lead to more aggressive questioning of the CDC, Texas health officials and, more broadly, state and federal governments.
Sensing the growing concern, President Obama canceled several fundraising and campaign events he had scheduled today in New Jersey and Connecticut to hold a meeting at the White House to coordinate the response to the latest Ebola news. It's also why politicians are becoming increasingly vocal about a travel ban from the affected West African countries; Thom Tillis (R) attacked North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan (D) for not supporting just such a ban Wednesday morning. And why Texas Gov. Rick Perry cut short his European trip to come back to the States and deal with the latest news.
Add it all up and you are left with this conclusion: Ebola is the October surprise of the 2014 midterms. That is, an unexpected event that has the potential to roil the electorate in all sorts of unpredictable ways.
The election is in 20 days. Given the news of two confirmed cases among Dallas health-care workers, the process of tracing the 132 passengers on the Cleveland-to-Dallas flight and the seeming expectation from health officials that more cases could be coming out of Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital, it's hard to imagine the story not dominating the news -- broadcast, cable, print, Web and radio -- for the bulk of that time (and likely longer).
And, as mentioned above, the ubiquity of the experience of air travel turns what felt like an isolated and awful story in Texas into something that now has much of the nation on higher alert. Even before Wednesday's news, more than four in ten people (43 percent) were worried about the possibility that they or someone in their immediate family might catch Ebola -- including 20 percent who called themselves "very" worried in the Washington Post-ABC News poll. Two thirds of people in that same poll said they were concerned about the possibility of a broader Ebola outbreak in the United States. Those numbers will only go up -- and, in all likelihood, way up -- now.
Fear -- and the anxiety that underlies it -- are deeply personal and powerful emotions that, when parsed through the political process, can produce uncertain outcomes. What the nearly-certainly raised fears mean for the coming election is difficult to predict.
But here's my best sense: The country is as anxious and uncertain as it's been in a very long time. Much of that anxiety had been laid at the feet of a deeply uncertain economic situation (the broad indicators improving without much to show for it closer to the ground) and the turbulence abroad (the Islamic State, Russia, the Middle East, etc.) coupled with a broader sense that the institutions that we once relied on (government, church, the justice system) are no longer reliable.
That sense of drift -- caught between the old way of doing things and a not-yet-realized new way of doing things -- is palpable in polling (huge majorities who say the country is headed in the wrong direction, a desire to get rid of everyone in Congress in one fell swoop) and in conversations I've had both with political professionals and average people.
Ebola -- with its sky-high mortality rate and lack of a vaccine -- dovetails perfectly with those existing fears and anxieties. And the stumbles -- or, at a minimum, perceived stumbles -- by the CDC and Texas health officials in recent days only adds to them.
The 2014 midterms, which are woefully devoid of any big or even medium-sized issues, won't do much to allay this anxiety. The working dynamic of the vote on Nov. 4 -- Obama is unpopular and Democrats are defending lots of states in tough areas -- seems unlikely to be deeply affected by Ebola. But the news about the virus will amplify existing worries within the electorate and put even more pressure on the would-be 2016 presidential aspirants to find a way to effectively address our collective sense of drift.