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Can Anthony Weiner Survive?

- June 9, 2011

It’s a topic that people are discussing.  Here’s some interesting new research that sheds a little light.  The paper (pdf) is by David Doherty, Conor Dowling, and Michael Miller.  In a 2009 survey, they presented respondents with one of four vignettes about a hypothetical politician enmeshed in a scandal.  The politicians was randomly described as a Republican, Democrat, or no party.  The vignettes all began this way:

bq. {Democrat/Republican/No party} Mark Jones is a 44-year old fourth term state representative. He was first elected in 2002, and has been re-elected by wide margins in the last three elections. Mark lives with his wife, Diane, and has three children, Eric, Alex and Brian.

The vignettes then varied in two ways.  First, the scandal was either moral (infidelity) or financial (tax evasion):

bq. {Moral} Recently, reports have confirmed that Representative Jones has been having an extra-marital affair for the past five years with 29 year-old Sandra Mason.

bq. {Financial}Recently, reports have confirmed that Representative Jones has failed to pay over $25,000 in income taxes over the past 10 years.

Second, they varied in whether there was an additional abuse of power for each type of scandal:

bq. {Moral} …Jones hired Mason as a paid policy consultant about two years into their affair.

bq. {Financial} …When the state auditor confronted him about this irregularity, Jones offered him a position as a paid policy consultant in exchange for not filing a formal complaint.

Doherty and colleagues examine how these vignettes affected respondents’ willingness to vote for Jones, their assessments of his job performance, and their assessments of him as a person.  Here are the results:

The vignettes all had a negative effect on views of Jones, as you might suspect.  But there are some interesting nuances.  First, the financial scandal tended to matter more than the moral scandal.  Second, the financial scandal’s impact was augmented by the abuse of power, but the abuse of power had less impact in the moral scandal.  Third, the moral scandal had more impact on evaluations of Jones as a person than on evaluations of his job performance.

So, back to Weiner.  The paper suggests the following:

  • He is probably better off having committed a moral offense rather than a financial one.
  • I wouldn’t say that his moral offense, however repugnant (and, whew, it is repugnant, and it looks really repugnant when your wife is pregnant) involved an abuse of power.  That probably helps.
  • But obviously he is going to take a hit in terms of perceptions of him as a person.  That could matter.  Elections aren’t entirely about job performance.  Here is a one piece of research (gated) by Carolyn Funk on the effect of perceptions of candidate traits.

Even more crucial than how voters perceive the scandal now is who is on the ballot in 2012.  A bigger factor than anything that Weiner does going forward or snap polls of what New Yorkers currently think is whether he attracts a credible challenger.  Of course, if his district gets redrawn, then that’s another issue entirely.  But assuming that his district is mostly intact, the question mark is his opponent.  It matters a lot who voters will be comparing Weiner to.  If it’s some nobody, then he might win.  If it’s someone with prior political experience and solid ties to the district — this story mentions Eric Gioia — then Weiner very well could lose.

Ultimately, I tend to agree with Matt Yglesias that not resigning is an important step toward surviving a sex scandal.  But this only works if, as Matt writes, fellow members of the party then feel forced to defend you.  That isn’t happening right now.   Quite the opposite, in fact.  The pressure from Pelosi and colleagues might be enough to push him out, no matter what.