A General Theory of Politicians’ Infidelity

I have two questions:

1) Are politicians more likely to have extramarital affairs than the population at large, controlling for relevant demographic factors (notably sex)?

2) If the answer to the first question is “yes,” then why?

I do not know the answer to the first question. Thinking about recent presidents, my categories are: definitely yes (FDR, JFK, WJC), there-are-rumors-but-just-rumors (LBJ, GHWB), I-have-no-idea (RWR, HST, DDE, RMN), and almost-certainly-not (JEC, GWB, BHO). So I wouldn’t hazard any definite answers based on this list. This article suggests some sort of systematic family dysfunction among the GOP’s class of 1994, although the stories there don’t necessarily involve affairs.

But for the sake of argument, let’s stipulate that politicians are more likely to have an affair. Why? A typical class of explanations revolves around personality, such as arrogance, hubris, neediness, or a desire for attention. Politicians are presumed to be “higher” in these qualities, and this leads them to have affairs. The counterfactual: take these same individuals out of political life—say, into the corporate world or some other occupational sphere—and they would be equally likely to have affairs.

A second class of explanations revolves around circumstance or situation. I can think of two dimensions that matter here. The first is separation from family. Here’s a quote from one of the GOP ‘94:

Mark Neumann, a Wisconsin Republican who was elected to the first of two House terms in 1994, said that when he came to Washington, he initially had trouble balancing congressional duties with his responsibilities as a husband and father.
“It was extremely intense and there was a lot of pressure,” said Neumann, who announced Wednesday he’s running for governor in 2010. “The whole concept of being away from home and family was certainly difficult to adjust to. I’d never been away from my wife for more than a day at a time until then.”

(To be clear: Neumann is not cited as having an affair. He’s just articulating the problems created by separation.) Separation from family may weaken bonds with spouse and children, at least to some extent. And that increases the likelihood of finding another person attractive, etc., etc. Of course, some politicians do live at home (e.g., governors). But even they travel quite a bit.

A second circumstantial factor is just opportunity. Here’s a passage from this NY Times piece:

But perhaps the strongest risk factor for infidelity, researchers have found, exists not inside the marriage but outside: opportunity.
“People tend to assume that bad people have affairs, and good people don’t, or that affairs only happen in bad marriages,” said Peggy Vaughan, a San Diego-based researcher who runs the Web site dearpeggy.com, and author of a forthcoming book on infidelity and marriage, “To Have and to Hold.” “These assumptions are just not based in reality.”

To me, “opportunity” means various things. Irrespective of one’s relationship with spouse or family, being separated from them simply makes it logistically easier to cheat. It’s easier to keep things from your spouse. It’s easier to sneak around without their knowing.

Opportunity also gets at how many more people politicians typically meet as compared to others. And somewhere in that large group is someone that politicians will find attractive. Other things equal, the larger your sphere of friends and acquaintances, the greater the chance of an affair. So, in a sense, all the pressing of flesh just leads to, well, some pressing of flesh.

The counterfactual is this: if we took a random sample of the population and installed them in political office, would it increase the chance that they would have affairs? My guess is that it would.

There is perhaps an interaction here as well. Aspects of politicians’ personalities make them more attractive—e.g., self-confidence—and that, combined with opportunity, increases the likelihood of affairs. In other words, it’s the combination of personality and circumstance that is particularly potent.

What am I missing?

12 Responses to A General Theory of Politicians’ Infidelity

  1. Martin July 2, 2009 at 11:08 am #

    It’s not just personality and circumstance, but status by itself as well, in my opinion. Governors, congressmen, presidents would be powerful and well-known just by virtue of the office they hold. And many women are attracted to status and power and money which begets opportunities for affairs. So if you want to compare character, you shouldn’t compare politicians to the general population, but to equally well-known or powerful “stars” – CEOs, sports or media celebrities. And my personal guess is that politicians wouldn’t fare that badly.

  2. Kevin July 2, 2009 at 11:22 am #

    The first question is perhaps the trickier one: are politicians more likely to have affairs? As the recent swine flu outbreak shows, states and municipalities with better health departments (and thus, reporting systems) show up as epicenters of disease. Similarly, we might just be more likely to find out about affairs of politicians, since it so clearly benefits their opposing party to out them. With the possible exception of Hollywood with its tabloid press, I can think of few settings where scandal is more likely to be publicized as widely as it is for politicians.

  3. Daniel July 2, 2009 at 2:59 pm #

    In line with the first comment (Martin), the latest report on Berlusconi’s wanderings is that one of the women he slept with wanted non-monetary favors in return.

    I would also argue that men are also attracted to status, it’s just that typically men are more likely to have it with respect to occupational structures.

  4. Scott McClurg July 2, 2009 at 3:47 pm #

    Purely FYI — CQ had a story today suggesting that the rate of infidelity was relatively high among the GOP class of 1994. It also implied that this was because of the pressure of the job. A link can be found on my FB page, I believe.

  5. paul July 2, 2009 at 9:18 pm #


    The political environment attracts people who are attracted to power.

    So you get close to but do not address directly the supply side of the equation.

  6. John Sides July 2, 2009 at 9:34 pm #

    Scott, I do cite that article in the post. I got it from your FB page! The power of networks?

    Kevin, I completely agree, which is why I shied away from answering the first question. The greater publicity that politicians’ affairs receive may create an availability bias whereby we overestimate the fraction of politicians who have affairs.

    Martin and Daniel, I agree that status matters. This suggest another aspect of the circumstance. The strong version: regardless of politicians’ personalities, they are more likely to have affairs because they occupy high-status positions, and these attract people who want things, and sometimes those people want sex. In other words, it’s the position, not the person.

    Paul: Let me make sure I understand you. Are the “people who are attracted to power” the people who become the politicians, or the people who sleep with the politicians? Say a bit more, if you would.

  7. Shag from Brookline July 3, 2009 at 7:53 am #

    The reference in a comment of Italy’s Berlusconi reminded me of the Italian-American marketing executive of a corporation I represented who after being shot down by the CEO-founder, told me of an old Italian saying: “If you’re rich, you’re not only smart but you’re good looking too.” This can be applied to many celebrities, including politicians.

    Yes, there is opportunity. But does the politician who succumbs first mentally go through a cost/benefit/risk analysis, considering that he is in the public spotlight almost 24/7? If he does, perhaps the challenges are too enticing to pass up. As a pre-teen hanging on the corner with older guys – teenagers – back in the early ’40s, I recall the wisdom of one of them: “A stiff dick has no conscience.”

  8. David Karol July 4, 2009 at 2:42 pm #

    This is not a big theoretical advance, but I think that to say LBJ was only “rumored” to be in the trangressing category is really fastidious. Yes, there is no DNA evidence, but I don’t think anyone seriously disputes the charge.

  9. John Sides July 4, 2009 at 7:23 pm #

    David: Consider me overly cautious.

  10. paul g. July 6, 2009 at 9:57 pm #


    Both. I don’t draw such a clean line between the politicians and the people who sleep with politicians.

    Staffers are not exactly out of politics.

    And the salary scale in DC stinks. There has to be a reason so many people flock to the City.

    I suppose I think asking this question is like asking why rock stars sleep with their groupies.

    The answer is why there isn’t a lot more infidelity. You’ve got lots of hard driving people living away from home working long hours in close quarters …

  11. Doctor Science July 6, 2009 at 10:52 pm #

    Thinking about recent presidents, my categories are: definitely yes (FDR, JFK, WJC), there-are-rumors-but-just-rumors (LBJ, GHWB), I-have-no-idea (RWR, HST, DDE, RMN), and almost-certainly-not (JEC, GWB, BHO)

    I believe you are underestimating the rate of politicians’ infidelity. Back in the 80s, during some politician/sex scandal or other (I can’t recall which), Theodore White said (I paraphrase):

    They all do it. In all the Presidential campaigns I’ve covered, the only major candidates who did *not* [screw around, I can’t remember what euphemism he used] were Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter. *Everyone else* did, and we the press knew it.

    I believe White *really* knew what he was talking about here, and I think it would be well to take his estimate as a baseline. A prudent historian should assume that both GWB and BHO have had anything from quickies to affairs while campaigning or in office, and that holds for their opponents as well.

    Infidelity is the *default* for high-ranking [male] politicians, as it is for popular musicians and actors and as it was for the hereditary aristocracy.

  12. Janey July 9, 2009 at 6:08 am #

    UK politician Robin Cook was famously ordered by the Labour Party press machine to tell his wife it was all over between them while they were at the airport about to go on holiday together.

    One of her comments was that it was very hard for him to come back from the adulation and deference in Westminster to being expected to put the garbage out at home. Another of her points was that it was well worth a lowly staffer’s time to put considerable effort into trying to snare him — the staffer stood to profit hugely compared to her current situation.

    Another factor is who is going to agree to a job that involves separation from spouse and family? Undoubtedly for some of the group it is because they are less attached to the spouse and family anyway.

    None of these factors are unique to politics (think about senior personnel in military service). I also think there is a personality component, but rate more highly tolerance of risk and ability to make rapid (shallow?) friendships.