Are Republicans More Likely to Have Affairs and Get Divorces?

Charles Blow revisits familiar findings: “red” states have higher divorce rates as well as higher rates of teen pregnancy and higher rates of on-line pornography consumption. He writes:

While conservatives fight to “defend” marriage from gays, they can’t keep theirs together. According to the Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract, states that went Republican in November accounted for eight of the 10 states with the highest divorce rates in 2006.

Welcome to another episode of “The Ecological Fallacy“! Once again: you cannot infer the behavior of individuals—Democrats and Republicans—from data at an aggregate level, such as states.

What happens when we look at individual-level data? Blow’s story falls apart. Using the General Social Survey, I first created a relevant measure of marital status: whether the respondent was divorced or separated at the time of the interview, or had ever been divorced or separated. So you are coded 1 in those cases, and 0 otherwise (i.e., if you had never been married or if you were married or widowed but never divorced or separated). The GSS included marital status in 27 surveys between 1972-2008. These surveys contain about 50,000 respondents.

I also created a measure of whether the respondent admitted to having an affair (leaving aside the issue of how many survey respondents answer this question honestly). For this measure you are coded 1 if you admitted to having an extramarital affair and 0 if you had not. I excluded respondents who had never been married. So this measure includes only those who are married or were married at some point. The GSS included the affair question (charmingly labeled “evstray” in the dataset) in 10 surveys between 1991-2008. These surveys contain about 16,000 respondents.

What do we find? Simple descriptive statistics suggest only small differences between Democrats, Republicans, and independents (here, independents who “lean” toward a party are counted as partisans):


About 29% of Democrats, 30% of independents, and 26% of Republicans are or have been divorced or separated.

About 19% of Democrats, 19% of independents, and 15% of Republicans admit to having an extramarital affair.

If anything, Republicans are slightly less likely than both Democrats and independents to get divorced or mess around. This is the opposite of what Blow suggests—which, yet again, reveals the problems of using aggregate data to make individual-level inferences.

To see if additional factors could explain even these small differences among groups of partisans, I then estimated two logit models. Here, the probability of being divorced or having had an affair is a function of a binary measure of partisanship (coded 1 if Republican and 0 otherwise, since there appears to be little difference between Democrats and independents), as well as controls for these factors: age, sex, race, educational attainment, and year of survey.

There are statistically significant, but small, differences between Republicans and Democrats/independents: other things equal, Republicans are 2 percentage points less likely to be or have been divorced. They are 4 points less likely to admit to an extramarital affair. To put that latter effect in some context, men are about 9 points more likely than women to admit to an extramarital affair.

These effects are slightly larger if we focus only on the 2008 data: Republicans are 4 points less likely than Democrats or independents to be or have been divorced, and 5 points less likely to admit to an extramarital affair.

This is a very simple analysis. Perhaps there are other factors one should control for, and perhaps there are interactions between party identification and the partisanship of states—a la Andy et al.’s research.

But I think the basic finding is likely robust: partisanship has a very weak relationship with either divorce or infidelity, and the relationships that do exist suggest that Republicans are less, not more, likely to get divorced or be unfaithful. Those, like Blow, who want to decry Republican “hypocrisy” on issues of family and sexuality may want to focus their ire on Sanford, Ensign, et al., and not on Republicans in the mass public.

10 Responses to Are Republicans More Likely to Have Affairs and Get Divorces?

  1. John Shanks June 28, 2009 at 8:05 pm #

    How does the party data break down at the state level?

  2. Noni Mausa June 28, 2009 at 9:55 pm #

    It is tempting to make the jump from state data to personal data and is, of course, false.

    What makes this jump more tempting are the stellar examples of Republicans and some of the noisier members of their base spending years or decades decrying (and punishing, if possible) activities which they themselves are eventually found indulging in. These slip-ups seem to be so common that one wonders how many of them don’t indulge.

  3. TGGP June 28, 2009 at 11:08 pm #

    The Inductivist beat you to it.

  4. Andrew Therriault June 29, 2009 at 12:26 am #

    Two questions about the validity of the individual-level results:

    1) How confident are we that the respondents’ answers are truthful? More to the point, might there be some systematic difference (by way of, say, religion) between Republicans’ and Democrats willingness to admit to affairs, and to a lesser extent, to their willingness to answer “divorced” as opposed to “single”?

    2) Noting that divorced people are only “divorced” until they are “married” again, can we really estimate from this data how frequently people get divorced? The data would be faulty if one group was more likely than another to get remarried in a shorter period of time. Imagine the case of two populations of ten people. In the first group, all had been divorced, but nine had remarried by the time of the survey. In the second, two had divorced but neither had remarried. In the survey, then, it would appear that the divorce rate was 2x as high in the second group, but in reality, the first group divorced at a rate 5x as high.

    Given the demographic differences between Republicans and Democrats (religion, urbanity, etc.), it’s easy to imagine that the marital norms for each group would be different–and if they are, that Republicans would be more likely to remarry and thus opt out of the “divorced” category. As such, a 2% or 4% difference between groups seems completely insignificant to my mind.

  5. John Sides June 29, 2009 at 9:02 am #

    John: Good question. I’ll try to look into this, but I can’t promise anything.

    TGGP: The Inductivist didn’t look at the breakdown by party, as far as I can tell.

    Andrews: #1 is a good point. My measure actually deals with #2: the measure is simply whether you have ever been divorced or whether you are currently divorced. So people who are divorced and the people who were divorced and then remarried are counted the same. The measure does not, however, count the number of divorces. Ultimately, I am sympathetic to your conclusion: the 2-4% difference seems small to me as well.

  6. Eric McGhee June 29, 2009 at 12:44 pm #

    John–I read a very interesting article in the New Yorker a while back about this issue. It claimed that research shows *evangelicals* are more likely to get divorced. Why? Because they are slightly more likely to engage in premarital sex, much less likely to use contraception when they do so, and then more likely to get married when a baby is the result. That means more shotgun weddings between two very young people who are not compatible and not financially or emotionally ready for marriage. At least that’s what I remember from the article. So R/D may not be the issue so much as religion.

  7. Shag from Brookline June 30, 2009 at 7:28 am #

    “That means more shotgun weddings between two very young people who are not compatible and not financially or emotionally ready for marriage.”

    Do these young people believe that the Second Amendment fosters such weddings?

    Maybe the “Viva Viagra!” TV commercials have made more of an impact upon middle-aged Republicans who never had their “salad days.”

  8. Not a Liberal June 30, 2009 at 3:18 pm #

    Republicans control the South or “red” states and that is where the majority of blacks live. Honestly even a retard knows this and I love how you completely don’t mention this in your article. Good Job.

  9. John Sides June 30, 2009 at 3:22 pm #

    Not a Liberal: I don’t follow. What exactly is your point, and how does it call into question my conclusions?


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