Mitt Romney and the need for fringe belief entrepreneurship


Christian media plays a prominent role in supplementing the influence of conservatism and Republicanism. Belief that vaccines can cause autism is not predicted by political identity, but could Christian media be home to the leading edge of right-wing belief generation?

Mitt Romney’s campaign took kind of an odd turn this week — odd even in the context of this campaign. They sent out a mailer in northern Virginia touting Romney’s plan to deal with the epidemic of… Lyme disease. This was not merely one line item in the mailer, it was the whole point: “What can a president do about Lyme disease?” asks the cover side, with the interior calling it a “massive epidemic threatening Virginia.” Virginia had 9.3 cases per 100,000 people in 2011, just above the national average of 7.8. Needless to say, this is an addition to the campaign agenda, and I’d wager an addition to campaign agendas in general going back a long, long time, and maybe forever. George Bush declared a Lyme Disease Awareness Week back in the summer of 1990, which is probably the closest it’s ever come to being a campaign issue.

The Romney mailer suggests a few ways that Romney will end the scourge of Lyme disease. First, “improve synergy.” Sure, sounds good. Second, “increase awareness.” This mailer sure has him off to a good start! Finally, “support treatment.” The interior of the mailer makes clear that supporting treatment is primarily about tort reform, because doctors who might get sued for malpractice can’t effectively treat Lyme disease. A friend suggested to me that this is really the point of this weird strategy, but I’m skeptical. The GOP desire for tort award caps is not something that is sublimated in any way — they’re open about it and they talk about it a lot. So why put out this odd mailer where tort reform is buried in one phrase of an interior bullet point, if tort reform is the point?

Simon van Zuylen-Wood, guest-blogging at Political Animal, had the same initial reaction I did: it’s about dog-whistling the Christian right. First, Virginia and its evangelical governor, Bob McDonnell, have actually been pushing Lyme disease prevention for the last couple years. McDonnell put together a Lyme disease task force headed by the president of the Home School Legal Defense Association, rather than, say, a scientist. Apparently Romney’s desire to “get the CDC out of the way” resonated with this guy and now they’re pals.

This narrative is based on some nice dot-connecting among all these individuals and institutions, and it’s well worth reading the whole thing. My impression, on the other hand, comes largely from following and studying fringe beliefs over the last several years, and specifically from a study I conducted last fall. This is data I presented at MAPOR last year, and will follow up this year. One of the beliefs I examined in that study was the belief that vaccines can cause autism, and unlike some other science-related beliefs (climate change, evolution), there was absolutely no effect of ideology and partisanship. There was also no effect of using partisan political media. There was, however, a significant effect of using Christian media, that positively predicted belief in the autism-causing power of vaccines. To the extent that this belief is rising up, it’s happening in a venue that has little traction in mainstream social and political discourse. This is nothing new for American fringe beliefs — when Dr. Strangelove‘s Commander Ripper expressed concern over our “precious bodily fluids,” that was a satire of contemporary fringe concerns nearly 50 years ago.

So I find myself wondering if what Romney’s doing here is trying to innovate in the domain of fringe issues, playing on a right-wing Christian health and government paranoia. For a campaign still trying to solidify its base, and desperately in need of something to change the election’s trajectory, that kind of enterprise campaigning has a lot of upside and carries little risk. If it makes the campaign look kooky and generates some laughs on the national level, so be it — people are laughing anyway.

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