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?