on the campaign trail

The Top Sixteen GOP Candidates - Caricatures by DonkeyHotey via flickr and used under a Creative Commons license

Bellevue, Ill. – Psychologists say there is growing evidence that GOP candidates scare pets and small children.

The psychologists, meeting here for their annual convention, said the research is based on interviews with parents whose children watched the first GOP debate and have since had difficulty sleeping without a parent in the room or leaving the lights on all night.

“My eight year old son never had difficulty sleeping and was never afraid of the dark until he saw Ted Cruz in the first debate,” said Richard Atkins, a registered Republican voter in Lexington, Ky. “I noticed a look of horror on his face but I didn’t think anything of it because frankly I had the same sensation. Then our dog Stacey went whimpering into the garage.”

Atkins said he’s tried everything to calm his son’s fears but nothing worked until he promised him he wouldn’t have to watch the second debate next week on CNN.

“I was just trying to give him a glimpse into the national discourse over something other than Taylor Swift,” he said. “I was trying to be a responsible, civic-minded parent, not a torture facilitator.”

Family service agencies across the country said they don’t plan to pursue charges against the parents because they had no way of knowing how traumatizing this field of GOP candidates could be.

Psychologists so far are at a loss to explain the phenomenon, but they say it’s similar to the fear many children have of circus clowns. “Look, you don’t have to have a rubber nose and orange hair and big floppy shoes to give a kid the willies,” said psychologist Tom Tappin. “Sometimes you just have to look and talk like Mike Huckabee.”

Researchers said the children appeared gripped by fear no matter which of the 17 candidates were onscreen. Some parents reported that once they realized their children and pets were terrified during the first debate they switched channels.

“My son was visibly shaking when Marco Rubio was talking about his version of the American Dream,” said parent Philip Stevens of Biloxi, Miss. “So I flipped over to Animal Planet where they had a documentary on locust plagues. He calmed down and started smiling.”

Pet psychologists advise putting pets in another room, or outside, during the debates. Snakes and fish don’t seem to be bothered by the GOP’s roster of presidential contenders.

Concerned by the findings, GOP strategists have staged recognition and reaction tests with children aged 5 to 12 to figure out how to reduce the candidates’ “clown effect” on children.

Children were hooked to electronic monitors and their eye movements and facial expressions were recorded as they were shown pictures of candidates along with photos of such well known scary figures as Dracula, Frankenstein and Pete Rose.

The children were terrified by all the images, and their fears did not track along party lines.  It didn’t matter if the children’s parents were registered Democrats, registered Republicans, or Independents, the children were all gripped with fear, said researcher Ralph Evans.

“It was like ‘These guys are zombies, mom, and there’s no way kill them!’” said Evans. “That’s an exact quote from a 10-year old boy when he saw Scott Walker.”

CNN said it is may put a ”Parental Advisory Explicit Content” warning at the beginning of its debate telecast next week, but the cable news network fears it could set a bad precedent and it would have to put a warning label on all its campaign coverage.

“You put that warning on the screen and the next thing you see is a guy named Wolf Blitzer,” said a CNN source. “What’s that going to do to parental fears?  I mean, you might as well give Wolf an axe and a hockey mask, right?”

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Image: GOP Top 16 Caricatures by DonkeyHotey via flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.
Jeffry Scott

Jeffry Scott

Jeffry Scott is a former staff reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution where, over the course of 24 years, he covered two of the biggest trials in the city's history -- the racketeering trial of former mayor Bill Campbell, and the trial of courthouse shooter, Brian Nichols -- and wrote features on travel, food, politics, movies, TV and advertising, and covered breaking news on the metro desk. He left the paper two years ago and is living, quite happily, in St. Petersburg, Fla., as a freelance writer.