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Flight to Safety: COVID-Induced Changes in the Intensity of Status Quo Preference and Voting Behavior

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 July 2021

NYU, United States
University College London, United Kingdom
James Bisbee, Postdoctoral Fellow, NYU Center for Social Media and Politics, NYU, United States,
Dan Honig, Associate Professor of Public Policy, School of Public Policy and Department of Political Science, University College London, United Kingdom,


The relationship between anxiety and investor behavior is well known enough to warrant its own aphorism: a “flight to safety.” We posit that anxiety alters the intensity of voters’ preference for the status quo, inducing a political flight to safety toward establishment candidates. Leveraging the outbreak of the novel coronavirus during the Democratic primary election of 2020, we identify a causal effect of the outbreak on voting, with Biden benefiting between 7 and 15 percentage points at Sanders’s expense. A survey experiment in which participants exposed to an anxiety-inducing prompt choose the less disruptive hypothetical candidate provides further evidence of our theorized flight to safety among US-based respondents. Evidence from 2020 French municipal and US House primary elections suggests a COVID-induced flight to safety generalizes to benefit mainstream candidates across a variety of settings. Our findings suggest an as-yet underappreciated preference for “safe” candidates in times of anxiety.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2021. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of the American Political Science Association

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