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Do political scandals even matter any more?

Increasingly, partisans back “their” candidate. For everyone else, too many scandals make it hard to focus on anyone.

- April 8, 2021

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, first published April 8, 2021, political scientist Brandon Rottinghaus responded to a spate of political scandals by examining some of the scholarship into why scandals don’t affect politicians’ popularity or opportunities as much as they once did. As we publish this, Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) has issued a statement saying that she “didn’t punch” her ex-husband in an altercation between the two that is now under police investigation.

New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D), whom several women have accused of sexual assault, still sits in the governor’s mansion. Former Missouri governor Eric Greitens (R), who resigned in 2018 after accusations of sexual assault and campaign finance violations, is back in politics and running for the U.S. Senate. He has denied wrongdoing and scolded the media for attacking him, as they did President Donald Trump, for being an “outsider,” saying, “they do the exact same thing to me.”

In Virginia, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax (D) is running for governor even after two women accused him in 2019 of sexual assault, the same year that Gov. Ralph Northam (D) survived allegations he wore blackface three decades before. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) has made headlines — and been parodied on “Saturday Night Live” — because of a federal investigation into whether he violated federal sex trafficking laws. He wrote in the Washington Examiner that he’s “not resigning. … I am a representative in Congress, not a monk, and certainly not a criminal.”

This spate of recent scandals comes after one of the most scandal-plagued presidencies in modern history. Trump faced defamation lawsuits; allegations that he mixed personal and family business interests with presidential actions; revelations that he had his personal lawyer pay an adult-film star to stay quiet about an alleged sexual encounter; charges that he abused power by pressuring the Ukrainian government to discredit his political rivals, for which he was impeached; and charges that he incited an attack on the Capitol, for which he was impeached again. And that’s just to name a few; there were many more.

Do scandals even matter any more?

In a polarized political world, political science research suggests such allegations are unlikely to have much effect on politicians’ approval or political ambitions.

Scandals matter less in a polarized era

Not surprisingly, scandals polarize the public. Yet even in the face of clear and undisputed charges, partisans backed Trump despite what critics say was evidence of illegal and “impeachable” activities. Even in cases involving serious charges of sexual harassment, Republican partisans do not strongly penalize their own candidates (although Democrats are more likely to penalize their own).

Political scientist Paul Goren finds that partisans weigh scandalous information about out-party politicians more heavily than the same information about co-partisans. Brian T. Hamel and Michael G. Miller find that while scandal-tainted politicians generally receive fewer votes and raise less money, in the post-1990s nationalization of politics, voters are less punitive and donors are even more supportive of scandal-ridden politicians.

Republicans may actually feel more positive toward their party after hearing about hypocritical transgressions of their preferred party’s political figures. Trump’s approval ratings were low compared to those of recent presidents, but strong partisan opinions were a ballast preventing them from dropping too low, according to Gary Jacobson, since presidential approval is now largely a proxy for partisanship. The effect is true for other politicians too.

Explain it away

Politicians have gotten really good at describing their motives and can avoid most, if not all, of the costs associated with changing positions. Even when politicians take positions that voters previously rejected, their ratings don’t go down. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) recently traveled to Cancún in Mexico during a devastating winter storm that left many in Texas without power or running water, and initially misled the media about the trip. And yet his reputation among Republicans stayed stable in the Lone Star State, ranked above every other Republican except Trump.

Scandals must compete for attention

Clever scholarship by political scientist Brendan Nyhan also shows that when it’s a slow news day, scandals are more likely to have a media impact, while a congested media environment starves any scandal, even a big one, of oxygen. As the response to covid-19 dominates national headlines, the Gaetz scandal might simply be crowded out. And since there have been so many scandals, the public might simply tune this one out.

Scholars have found that, elsewhere in the world, “scandal fatigue” means that each individual scandal has little effect on satisfaction with democracy. The pace and frequency of scandals emerging from the Trump administration and across the nation may simply mean that each one leaves little impression on a politics-weary public.

Why Trump scandals might be different, or not

Most elected officials successfully navigate scandals and keep their jobs. Individual or collective scandals besetting a White House have little effect on the president’s ability to deliver legislation. Trump endured many scandals while in office with little effect on his overall approval, and virtually none among his base.

Trump has aggressively flirted with another White House run. Will his norm-defying number of scandals hurt him politically? Recent scholarship by political scientists Amy S. Funck and Katherine T. McCabe shows that scandals aren’t necessarily “dealbreakers” for voters. Politicians felled by scandal may not lose political support (due to shared partisanship) but voters do rate scandal-plagued politicians as less moral. Scandals affect the electorate less, they find, in a fluid 24-hour news media environment. In my own work, I find that during crowded presidential primaries, scandals hurt candidates’ fundraising most, and have little effect on the candidate’s polling or endorsements.

Some scandals provoke reform

Scandals have not always had such limited effects. Political scientist Logan Dancey argues scandals can spur reform efforts. Investigations may scrutinize public officials’ wrongdoing and can hold them accountable — and can prompt larger change when the issue can be connected to financial scandals or systemic problems. Scandals can also prompt more internal investigations inside the executive branch. Such efforts can help push changes in political norms.

It is too early to proclaim the death of scandals’ impact on politicians. Voters can still spot scoundrels, especially when opponents point out ulterior motives for a politician’s actions. Political scientist Beth Miller finds that being exposed to scandalous information helps voters remember the campaign’s policy issues, so scandals may even improve elections’ quality.

But in today’s polarized and politics-saturated United States, the latest political scandals likely won’t have much effect. That may let many embattled politicians hold on, come back — or even move up.

Brandon Rottinghaus (@bjrottinghaus) is a professor of political science at the University of Houston specializing in the executive and Texas politics, and author most recently of Inside Texas Politics (Oxford University Press, 2017) and The Institutional Effects of Executive Scandals (Cambridge University Press, 2015).