Menus Subscribe Search

What Makes Us Politic

watergate-complex

The Watergate. (Photo: Frontpage/Shutterstock)

Why Do Scandals Destroy Some Politicians but Not Others?

• April 14, 2014 • 12:00 PM

The Watergate. (Photo: Frontpage/Shutterstock)

We’ve seen some careers ended, and others accelerated. What does the research have to say about who is ruined by a scandal and who isn’t?

Just how deadly are scandals for American politicians? We’ve certainly seen plenty of political careers cut short by extramarital affairs or financial misconduct, but we’ve also seen politicians like Bill Clinton not only weather scandal but seem to emerge stronger and more popular from the experience. Why is it that some politicians seem to be able to ride out difficult storms while others founder? Are some storms worse than others?

Scott Clement at The Fix had a fascinating post up last week analyzing 38 congressional sex scandals since 1974. The analysis found that not only are the odds against a scandal-plagued incumbent maintaining his (yes, these were all men) seat, but those odds have gotten worse over time. This doesn’t bode well for Representative Vance McAllister (R-Louisiana), whose short congressional career is now threatened by his kissing a married staffer.

Context also matters. Your allies may be quick to abandon you during a scandal if you’re expendable (think John Edwards), but if you’re, say, the president, they may be more likely to rally to your side.

Political scientists have also looked at these questions. Brandon Rottinghaus (PDF) examined scandals in presidential nominations contests since the 1990s and found a curious pattern: Scandals seemed to harm fundraising but actually improve the candidate’s prospects for winning the nomination. There may be a few things driving this. For one, the scandal may actually increase awareness of the candidate—voters hear more about the contest thanks to the scandal and start paying attention to the candidate, and they may actually like what they see (apart from the scandal itself). These scandals may also be more likely to emerge among the candidates with a better chance of winning. (More on this below.) Other research by Rottinghaus (PDF) suggests that presidential scandals are more durable when there is a larger party opposing him in the Congress (presumably one with subpoena powers).

Scott Basinger, meanwhile, looked at over 250 scandals affecting members of the House of Representatives over the past four decades, finding that scandal seemed to reduce re-election margins by around five percent—roughly erasing the typical advantage incumbents have when running. This may well understate the penalty, as many incumbents facing the most serious scandals resign their seats before the next election. One way or another, Basinger finds, roughly 40 percent of House members facing scandals will not be in office for the next session. An earlier study by John Peters and Susan Welch found a vote penalty ranging from six to 11 percentage points.

Context also matters. Your allies may be quick to abandon you during a scandal if you’re expendable (think John Edwards), but if you’re, say, the president, they may be more likely to rally to your side. Scandals may also be more damaging for black candidates (PDF) than for white ones. Additionally, scandals may be more likely to emerge when the opposition party has a lower opinion of the incumbent and when it’s a slow news week (PDF). Voters think worse of scandals involving financial problems than they do of sex scandals, especially when abuse of power is involved. They are also quicker to forgive (or forget) sex scandals than financial ones (PDF).

The studies all seem to confirm the idea that scandals are serious and do exact a price from politician’s careers. Yet a lot of this research remains plagued by selection bias. That is, scandals may be more likely to emerge among the better candidates or more powerful officeholders. This isn’t because better politicians are more likely to cheat on their spouses (although that would be interesting!), but because no one’s going to bother to research and dig up scandals against a politician whose career isn’t going anywhere. Why waste effort destroying someone who poses no threat to you? It’s more often the serious politicians whose lives will be investigated with a fine-toothed comb. Which means that scandals may actually be more damaging to political careers than they seem.

On the other hand, we also know that many politicians resign almost immediately upon a scandal’s emergence rather than test their fate with the voters. They do so partially on the belief that they’re going to lose anyway, partially due to pressure from allies in their party, and partially because they just don’t want to have reporters camped out in front of their houses anymore. And who can blame them? But we don’t actually know how they would have done if they’d just refused to resign. As Bill Clinton and David Vitter showed, you can survive some scandals, but that can take a toll on your personal or family life that many politicians just aren’t willing to pay.


Thanks to Brendan Nyhan for help in researching this post.

Seth Masket
Seth Masket is a political scientist at the University of Denver, specializing in political parties, state legislatures, campaigns and elections, and social networks. He is the author of No Middle Ground: How Informal Party Organizations Control Nominations and Polarize Legislatures (University of Michigan Press, 2009). Follow him on Twitter @smotus.

More From Seth Masket

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


July 28 • 10:00 AM

Hell Isn’t for Real

You may have seen pictures of the massive crater in Siberia. It unfortunately—or fortunately—does not lead to the netherworld.


July 28 • 8:00 AM

Why Isn’t Obama More Popular?

It takes a while for people to notice that things are going well, particularly when they’ve been bad for so long.


July 28 • 7:45 AM

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.


July 28 • 6:00 AM

Hams Without Ends and Cats Tied to Trees: How We Create Traditions With Dubious Origins

Does it really matter if the reason for why you give money to newlyweds is based on a skewed version of a story your parents once told you?


July 28 • 4:00 AM

A Belief in ‘Oneness’ Is Equated With Pro-Environment Behavior

New research finds a link between concern for the environment and belief in the concept of universal interconnectedness.


July 25 • 4:00 PM

Flying Blind: The View From 30,000 Feet Puts Everything in Perspective

Next time you find yourself in an airplane, consider keeping your phone turned off and the window open.


July 25 • 2:00 PM

Trophy Scarves: Race, Gender, and the Woman-as-Prop Trope

Social inequality unapologetically laid bare.


July 25 • 1:51 PM

Confusing Population Change With Migration

A lot of population change is baked into a region from migration that happened decades ago.


July 25 • 1:37 PM

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.



July 25 • 11:07 AM

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.


July 25 • 10:00 AM

Shelf Help: New Book Reviews in 100 Words or Less

What you need to know about Bad Feminist, XL Love, and The Birth of Korean Cool.



July 25 • 8:00 AM

The Consequences of Curing Childhood Cancer

The majority of American children with cancer will be cured, but it may leave them unable to have children of their own. Should preserving fertility in cancer survivors be a research priority?


July 25 • 6:00 AM

Men Find Caring, Understanding Responses Sexy. Women, Not So Much

For women looking to attract a man, there are advantages to being a caring conversationalist. But new research finds it doesn’t work the other way around.


July 25 • 4:00 AM

Arizona’s Double-Talk on Execution and Torture

The state is certain that Joseph Wood’s death was totally constitutional. But they’re looking into it.


July 24 • 4:00 PM

Overweight Americans Have the Lowest Risk of Premature Death

Why do we use the term “normal weight” when talking about BMI? What’s presented as normal certainly isn’t the norm, and it may not even be what’s most healthy.


July 24 • 2:00 PM

California’s Lax Policing of the Fracking Industry Has Put the Drought-Stricken State in a Terrible Situation

The state’s drought has forced farmers to rely on groundwater, even as aquifers have been intentionally polluted due to exemptions for the oil industry.


July 24 • 12:00 PM

What’s in a Name? The Problem With Washington’s Football Team

A senior advisor to the National Congress of American Indians once threw an embarrassing themed party that involved headdresses. He regrets that costume now, but knows his experience is one many others can relate to.


July 24 • 11:00 AM

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that’s fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.


July 24 • 10:58 AM

How the Supremes Pick Their Cases—and Why Obamacare Is Safe for Now

The opponents of Obamacare who went one for two in circuit court rulings earlier this week are unlikely to see their cases reach the Supreme Court.



Follow us


Subscribe Now

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

Do Not Tell Your Kids That Eating Vegetables Will Make Them Stronger

Instead, hand them over in silence. Or, market them as the most delicious snack known to mankind.

The West’s Groundwater Is Being Sucked Dry

Scientists were stunned to discover just how much groundwater has been lost from beneath the Colorado River over the past 10 years.

How Wildlife Declines Are Leading to Slavery and Terrorism

As wildlife numbers dwindle, wildlife crimes are rising—and that's fueling a raft of heinous crimes committed against humans.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.