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Can Politicians Make a Come Back from Sex Scandals?

- March 28, 2013

Mark Sanford is running for Congress. David Petraeus may consider a run for President. In both cases there are major question marks about whether the American public may forgive them for their somewhat scandalous affairs.

A new working paper by David Doherty, Conor Dowling, and Michael Miller suggests that the passage of time may help. They ran a survey experiment in which the time since the past transgression was manipulated. Voters clearly weighed recent transgressions more heavily than past mistakes, although they didn’t fully discount history: the damage from a scandal that occurred twenty years ago was about half that from one that occurred just one year ago. Presumably participants in the experiment inferred from the mention of a scandal twenty years ago both that it was relevant and that it had not since been repeated.

William Doyle argues at CNN that Americans may forgive Petraeus because he has apologized and Americans like this. Maybe but I do not know the empirical evidence for that. Some experimental studies show that denial is more effective than apology and that silence may be more effective than both. Moreover, support from third parties is important. On this metric, Petraeus is clearly in better shape than Sanford who is struggling to get support from party notables, including Rick Santorum. I don’t know the literature well though so please add in comments.