Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


gingrich

Newt Gingrich at a political conference during his 2012 presidential bid, in Orlando, Florida. (PHOTO: GAGE SKIDMORE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

That Lingering Whiff of Scandal Lasts About 4 Years

• June 19, 2013 • 9:06 AM

Newt Gingrich at a political conference during his 2012 presidential bid, in Orlando, Florida. (PHOTO: GAGE SKIDMORE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

If politicians can survive the initial storm over their bad deeds, it takes roughly four years before voters will forgive and forget.

Just for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re a seven-term congressman and you’ve got a little problem with the House Ethics Committee. How long before the folks back home forgive and forget?

About two terms, according to a new study in the Social Science Quarterly. This assumes that you stick around—about a quarter of House members resign or retire when scandal comes a’knockin’—and that you’re among the half who survive the next election.

Given that initial election to the House is as good a promise of continued employment as modern America can provide these days, such results are pretty telling, even if it seems obvious that a scandal ought to get you booted out. And it puts an expiration date on Fitzgerald’s old (and misused) dictum about second acts in American life.

“Incumbents involved in scandals were about three times more likely to resign or retire and three times more likely to be defeated in the general election.”

For their research, University of Connecticut political scientists Rodrigo Praino and Vincent G. Moscardelli, along with Daniel Stockemer from the University of Ottawa, looked at all the U.S. House of Representatives races between 1972 and 2006. In that period, 88 members had issues that were referred to the Ethics panel, which was the researchers’ metric for a scandal. That won’t net every observed transgression, especially those with a sexual edge—Anthony Weiner’s softcore escapades in 2011, as an example outside the study period, saw him resign before anything hit the committee—but it does ensure, the authors write, that the allegations are publicized and “reasonably founded.”

An ethics probe has never been an automatic bar to retaining a seat, but it does hurt. “Incumbents involved in scandals” according to the study, ”were about three times more likely to resign or retire, three times more likely to be defeated in the general election, and 11 times more likely to be defeated in a primary than other incumbents.”

Given Americans’ famously short attention spans, the trio of political scientists asked not just how much the scandal hurt in the very next election cycle, where the damage has been studied before, but in subsequent election cycles. (Remember that all 435 seats in the House are voted on every two years.) On average, they found the incumbent’s election margin—the difference between the incumbent’s vote total and the challenger’s—dropped 12 percentage points in the immediate race and, assuming the wounded candidate retained the seat, five percentage points in the next. “It is not until the second postscandal reelection bid (year 4) that the average scandal-plagued incumbent returns to his or her prescandal margins,” they wrote.

(It’s not quite confirmation, but New York Times’ stats wizard Nate Silver points out that four years after Mark Sanford was shamed out of South Carolina’s governorship, he won a House seat there by about 13 percentage points fewer than party registration would have suggested.)

That a candidate could lose a dozen percentage points and still win would be amazing in more competitive races, like the presidency, where it’s been just shy of 30 years since the winning margin was greater than 12 points. But in the average House race, the margin of victory was about 33 points. Talk about a victory for those who argue for safe seats!

The researchers did factor in a number of controls in generating their results, including the partisanship of a district and of the candidate, how well a candidate did in elections before the scandal broke, campaign spending by both sides, and how strong a challenger was put up by the opposition. They also controlled for seniority—a lousy human being who brings goodies to the district, after all, is a lousy human being we can re-elect—and for the fact that while re-election is the rule, victory margins do taper off as House members grow longer in the tooth. Scandals on average pop up in the seventh term, the researchers learned.

A scandal also increases voter turnout at the district level. The bump is a modest (and statistically insignificant) 1.6 percent, but all the increase goes to the opponent.

If we assume that anything that doesn’t kill a career makes it stronger, almost everything about a scandal seems modest with the passage of time. Right after they set out that the aftertaste of scandal depresses expected margins of victory for four to six years, the political scientists noted, “Incumbents who survive their initial reelection bid do recover a substantial amount (just under two-thirds) of the immediate loss after just one cycle, quickly moving the average incumbent back out of any ‘danger’ zone into which he or she might have tumbled in the immediate aftermath of the scandal.”

This paper, of course, was focused just on the U.S. House of Representatives, which only covers some American political scandals, i.e. Rangel and Renzi and Cunningham and DeLay and Gingrich, but not others, i.e. Vitter and Spitzer and Sanford. But that idea of four years or so for political reconciliation seems like a handy rule of thumb: Mark Sanford went from doghouse to the House (presumably via the Appalachian Trail) in that span, while headlines this month reported that George W. Bush’s popularity has rebounded from its 2008 low.

Michael Todd
Most of Michael Todd's career has been spent in newspaper journalism, ranging from papers in the Marshall Islands to tiny California farming communities. Before joining the publishing arm of the Miller-McCune Center, he was managing editor of the national magazine Hispanic Business.

More From Michael Todd

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

Recent Posts

October 31 • 8:00 AM

Who Wants a Cute Congressman?

You probably do—even if you won’t admit it. In politics, looks aren’t everything, but they’re definitely something.


October 31 • 7:00 AM

Why Scientists Make Promises They Can’t Keep

A research proposal that is totally upfront about the uncertainty of the scientific process and its potential benefits might never pass governmental muster.


October 31 • 6:12 AM

The Psychology of a Horror Movie Fan

Scientists have tried to figure out the appeal of axe murderers and creepy dolls, but it mostly remains a spooky mystery.


October 31 • 4:00 AM

The Power of Third Person Plural on Support for Public Policies

Researchers find citizens react differently to policy proposals when they’re framed as impacting “people,” as opposed to “you.”


October 30 • 4:00 PM

I Should Have Told My High School Students About My Struggle With Drinking

As a teacher, my students confided in me about many harrowing aspects of their lives. I never crossed the line and shared my biggest problem with them—but now I wish I had.


October 30 • 2:00 PM

How Dark Money Got a Mining Company Everything It Wanted

An accidentally released court filing reveals how one company secretly gave money to a non-profit that helped get favorable mining legislation passed.


October 30 • 12:00 PM

The Halloween Industrial Complex

The scariest thing about Halloween might be just how seriously we take it. For this week’s holiday, Americans of all ages will spend more than $5 billion on disposable costumes and bite-size candy.


October 30 • 10:00 AM

Sky’s the Limit: The Case for Selling Air Rights

Lower taxes and debt, increased revenue for the city, and a much better use of space in already dense environments: Selling air rights and encouraging upward growth seem like no-brainers, but NIMBY resistance and philosophical barriers remain.


October 30 • 9:00 AM

Cycles of Fear and Bias in the Criminal Justice System

Exploring the psychological roots of racial disparity in U.S. prisons.


October 30 • 8:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Email Newsletter Writer?

Noah Davis talks to Wait But Why writer Tim Urban about the newsletter concept, the research process, and escaping “money-flushing toilet” status.



October 30 • 6:00 AM

Dreamers of the Carbon-Free Dream

Can California go full-renewable?


October 30 • 5:08 AM

We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it’s probably something we should work on.


October 30 • 4:00 AM

He’s Definitely a Liberal—Just Check Out His Brain Scan

New research finds political ideology can be easily determined by examining how one’s brain reacts to disgusting images.


October 29 • 4:00 PM

Should We Prosecute Climate Change Protesters Who Break the Law?

A conversation with Bristol County, Massachusetts, District Attorney Sam Sutter, who dropped steep charges against two climate change protesters.


October 29 • 2:23 PM

Innovation Geography: The Beginning of the End for Silicon Valley

Will a lack of affordable housing hinder the growth of creative start-ups?


October 29 • 2:00 PM

Trapped in the Tobacco Debt Trap

A refinance of Niagara County, New York’s tobacco bonds was good news—but for investors, not taxpayers.


October 29 • 12:00 PM

Purity and Self-Mutilation in Thailand

During the nine-day Phuket Vegetarian Festival, a group of chosen ones known as the mah song torture themselves in order to redirect bad luck and misfortune away from their communities and ensure a year of prosperity.


October 29 • 10:00 AM

Can Proposition 47 Solve California’s Problem With Mass Incarceration?

Reducing penalties for low-level felonies could be the next step in rolling back draconian sentencing laws and addressing the criminal justice system’s long legacy of racism.


October 29 • 9:00 AM

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.


October 29 • 8:00 AM

America’s Bathrooms Are a Total Failure

No matter which American bathroom is crowned in this year’s America’s Best Restroom contest, it will still have a host of terrible flaws.



October 29 • 6:00 AM

Tell Us What You Really Think

In politics, are we always just looking out for No. 1?


October 29 • 4:00 AM

Racial Resentment Drives Tea Party Membership

New research finds a strong link between tea party membership and anti-black feelings.


October 28 • 4:00 PM

The New Health App on Apple’s iOS 8 Is Literally Dangerous

Design isn’t neutral. Design is a picture of inequality, of systems of power, and domination both subtle and not. Apple should know that.


Follow us


We’re Not So Great at Rejecting Each Other

And it's probably something we should work on.

Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and the Brain

Neuroscientists find less—but potentially stronger—white matter in the brains of patients with CFS.

Incumbents, Pray for Rain

Come next Tuesday, rain could push voters toward safer, more predictable candidates.

Could Economics Benefit From Computer Science Thinking?

Computational complexity could offer new insight into old ideas in biology and, yes, even the dismal science.

Politicians Really Aren’t Better Decision Makers

Politicians took part in a classic choice experiment but failed to do better than the rest of us.

The Big One

One town, Champlain, New York, was the source of nearly half the scams targeting small businesses in the United States last year. November/December 2014

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