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Clinton scandals may have defeated one presidential candidate. Could they do it again?

- March 27, 2015

Former U.S. secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton speaks to the media after keynoting a Women’s Empowerment Event at the United Nations March 10, 2015, in New York City. Clinton answered questions about recent allegations of an improperly used e-mail account during her tenure as secretary of state. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
With Hillary Rodham Clinton’s questionable e-mail practices in the news, many people have asked whether it will matter for the 2016 election. And the most typical answer is that it won’t matter much, if at all. “Few Americans are paying attention”notedBrendan Nyhan. Nate Silver weighed in with atweetabout how this scandal demonstrates the difference between what the media cares about and what the public cares about. And Jonathan Laddarguedthat the small number of persuadable voters won’t care about this scandal when Election Day rolls around.
There is certainly a lot of truth to these claims. Some, perhaps most, voters will either ignore evidence of wrongdoing or exaggerate it at every turn — depending upon their partisan leaning. And the number of Americans currently paying attention to election news is, doubtless, very small. Perhaps, in the end, none of this will matter for Hillary Clinton.
And yet, there is another way of putting the question that deserves consideration: is there any evidence voters consider things like scandals when they go to the polls? Larry Sabatowritesthat if you examine presidential elections since 1900 “you’ll find that scandal has seldom played any conclusive role.” That is mostly true, but it leaves out one of the few times that scandal arguably did play a role. Interestingly, the Clintons were involved, but it was Al Gore that suffered.
Vice-President Gore underperformed expectations in the 2000 election. Of course he won the popular vote, but just months earlier most political scientists were predicting that Gore would win anywhere from 53 to 60 percent of the popular vote. Yet he won only 50.3 percent of the major-party vote. According tomy researchwith Morris Fiorina and Samuel Abrams, one important factor was probably Clinton-era scandals.
In 2000, voters’ evaluations of the Clinton presidency were quite positive, but there was an exception. When asked whether or not the moral climate of the country had improved since 1992, just 5 percent of Americans said that it had, according to the American National Election Study. Forty-five percent thought it had gotten worse. In a statistical model of the vote that accounted for partisanship and several other factors, evaluations of the moral climate were more powerfully correlated with the vote than evaluations of the economy — and potentially could have accounted for a three to four point shift in the vote.
Now, for a host of reasons, it is important not to put too much emphasis on a single partial correlation. For one thing, this question about the moral climate is open to interpretation. Clinton scandals may not have been the only reason that so many believed the moral state of the country was in decline — although Clinton “fatigue” was cited at the time and often in moral terms, such as in Sen. Joseph Lieberman’s famousspeech.
There are also other possible reasons for Gore’s loss, such as Lynn Vavreck’sargumentthat Gore failed to emphasize the Clinton administration’s economic record.  And the current scene is quite different from the 1990s. Hillary Clinton has her own record now and she will run not just on that record but in the shadow of Obama’s presidency.
So if the question is whether a specific e-mail scandal will change opinions of Hillary Clinton, the above comments are almost certainly correct: one specific scandal won’t matter much, if at all.  And as long as party leaders remain united behind Hillary Clinton, she will have little trouble securing the nomination.
The real danger for Hillary Clinton and the Democrats is that she’ll further develop a reputation for distracting scandals that could hurt her in the general election. While any individual scandal may not amount to much, a consistent pattern of drama and embarrassment could be important to voters considering her overall record.  And the Clintons’ adversarial relationship with the media could keep these issues in the news throughout the campaign. If that happens, Clinton scandals may help decide a second presidential election.
Jeremy C. Pope (@JeremyCPope) is Associate Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University.