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Uncommon Knowledge

Safety in numbers. . . of conservatives

Shutterstock /Globe staff illustration/Alex Kosev

Safety in numbers . . . of conservatives

Remember the Ebola scare back in 2014? Remember the shellacking that Democrats received in the 2014 election? Coincidence? A new study thinks not. Polls indicated increasing support for Republican candidates — particularly in Republican-leaning states — after the outbreak reached the United States and as Google search activity for “Ebola” increased, even though there had been a trend towards Democrats before then and even controlling for the stock market and search activity for “ISIS.” This wasn’t just a reaction against the incumbent president; polls of Canadians indicated that even though “day-to-day changes in Canadians’ Ebola-related Internet searches were virtually identical to those in the United States,” there was an increase in support for the incumbent (conservative) prime minister.

Beall, A. et al., “Infections and Elections: Did an Ebola Outbreak Influence the 2014 U.S. Federal Elections (and if so, How)?” Psychological Science (forthcoming).

Southern resolve

Don’t pick a fight with a Southerner. That’s the lesson — internationally — of recent research by political scientists at MIT and Yale. They found that American presidents from the South — where there is more of a culture of honor and resolve — were less likely to back down in international disputes. Specifically, disputes “that have occurred under Southern presidents have been twice as likely to involve the use of force, have lasted on average twice as long, and have been three times as likely to be won by the United States.” This pattern was not explained by other characteristics of the president or the domestic or international situation at the time.

Dafoe, A. & Caughey, D., “Honor and War: Southern US Presidents and the Effects of Concern for Reputation,” World Politics (April 2016).

Donors choose

Some have attributed the surprising popularity of Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump to a divergence between ordinary voters and the “donor class,” who typically bankroll candidates. But are politicians actually aligned with their donors? A survey of donors from the 2012 election revealed that senators and their donors are in “nearly perfect” ideological alignment, whereas senators are less aligned with average voters of the same party or those who actually voted for the senator, not to mention voters overall. Some of this may simply be explained by donors contributing only to candidates already in close alignment, but given that donors tend to be ideologically motivated, it’s not like candidates can just as easily raise money by moderating themselves ideologically.

Barber, M., “Representing the Preferences of Donors, Partisans, and Voters in the US Senate,” Public Opinion Quarterly (forthcoming).

Pay to play

Many colleges offer generous financial aid to good students from poor families. Yet, many of those students don’t really know that. They assume college is out of reach. So a psychologist at Northwestern University conducted experiments that randomly provided middle-school students with information about need-based financial aid for college. Poor students — but not affluent students — who learned about financial aid subsequently reported that they would spend more time on homework and studying, would aim for higher grades, and were much more likely to imagine doing something in 10 years that depended on a college education.

Destin, M., “An Open Path to the Future: Perceived Financial Resources and School Motivation,” Journal of Early Adolescence (forthcoming).

Kevin Lewis is an Ideas columnist. He can be reached at