Fear reached new levels after 9/11, when Americans discovered that external forces could do harm within our borders. But fear has always lurked in voter psyche - be it fear of blacks, Jews, gangs, illegal immigrants, Muslims, the radical left, the radical right, or the currently most-feared group, terrorists.
Americans pride themselves in being tough, but fear about personal safety has never been so oppressive as it is in 21st-Century mindsets.
Yet, the only thing Americans are inclined to worry about more than fear is money. The nation's current economic turmoil offers plenty to worry about, although people without enough money have always worried about how to get more, and those with plenty of money worry about how to keep it.
So, as Election Day draws near, every issue connects to one or both of these fundamental worries. The war in Iraq, although shoved off the front page, provides a barometer. When money didn't seem to be an issue, many Americans favored whatever military action would assuage their fears over national security. When the cost became overwhelming, even hawks turned against the war as economic worries overtook their fears about safety.
Candidates talk about health care, but voters wonder: what will it cost me? Education: how much? The energy crisis: what's the tab?
In modern times conservatives have been counted upon to favor tough national security. As recently as August John McCain appeared to have a shot at winning the White House as the anti-fear candidate, despite the overwhelming Bush failures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Republican-backed spending policies that caused the national debt to soar.
Then, money replaced fear as America's top priority, and Barack Obama replaced McCain as the front-runner. It's not that Democrats have shed the "tax and spend" label; rather, the economy has tanked on Bush's watch, and McCain has been unable to convince voters that his administration would do much better.
This turn of events has produced a shift in the polls, but also enormous anxiety among independent voters. Talking to many of them in the swing state of Nevada last week, I was taken by how many indicated they had never voted Democratic but now planned to vote for Obama.
These voters, some with McCain-Palin signs still visible on their lawns, remain hawkish about the war, yet they connect its cost to their own financial problems - from the cost of gas to lack of credit.
It's hard to imagine a more telling scene than the one that's playing out daily at the Election Office in Carson City, Nev., as voters ask: If I lost my home due to foreclosure, is my voter registration at that address still valid? These are not likely to be McCain supporters.
Not surprisingly, the McCain campaign has tried to foster fear by branding Obama as a terrorist sympathizer. But only a dramatic development in national security, not tired campaign claims, could flip money back to fear as the deciding issue at this late stage.
In a memorable comedy routine, the notoriously thrifty Jack Benny was asked, "Your money or your life?" The silence as Benny considered his answer was hilarious.
Voters may have pondered that very question. But few remain undecided, and they're certainly not laughing.
© Peter Funt. This column first appeared in The Monterey Herald.