The Electoral Effects of Jimmy Carter’s Lust

Former President Jimmy Carter seems to be on the mend. Let me provide him some further good news. Last week, he told Maureen Dowd:

“I dropped 15 percentage points, and I almost lost the election,” Carter, about to turn 86, recalled in a chat during his book tour in Manhattan this week, adding with some wry hyperbole: “It was the most copies of Playboy ever sold.”

He is referring, of course, to his famous “lusted in my heart” interview with Playboy. Did it really cost him 15 points?

With an assist from Jim Stimson, I collected the trial heat polls from 1976 and plotted the raw poll numbers for Carter and Ford along with a smoothed trendline. The vertical lines denote the conventions, debates, the approximate date of the “lust in my heart” story. This is the date of the first story that I could find in Lexis-Nexis that contained the words “Carter” and “lust” or “Playboy” (a September 21st story in the New York Times). According to a CBS/New York Times poll conducted from Sept. 24-25, only 21% said that they not heard of this story.


The polling data in the graph are scant by contemporary standards. But they do reveal a large boost for Carter coming out of the convention. What they doe not reveal, however, is any effect of his lust.

The coincidence of lust and the first presidential debate makes it difficult to pinpoint the effects of either event. An apples-to-apples comparison of Time-Yankelovich polls from August 20-24 and September 25-29 show a 6-point decline in Carter’s numbers. The same comparison of Harris polls from August 18-30 and September 24 shows a similar 6-point decline. The smoothed trendline for Carter doesn’t really move.

So, the evidence is equivocal and certainly suggests nothing approaching a 15-point decline or any considerable electoral risk for Carter, who was ahead by at least 5 points for virtually the entire fall.

3 Responses to The Electoral Effects of Jimmy Carter’s Lust

  1. Tom Holbrook September 29, 2010 at 2:57 pm #

    Another example of conventional wisdom (as well as recollections of actual participants) bumping up against stubborn data.

    It’s also worth noting that the figure shows that the Great Gaffe in the second debate (“There is no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe…”)had no negative impact on support for Ford. In fact, it looks like he gained a few points.

    Data sure can be stubborn

  2. Dan October 2, 2010 at 2:16 am #

    The smoothed trend line isn’t useful here – it’s basically just plotting a straight line connecting the late August poll numbers (which were the last polls before the remark) with the late September poll numbers (which came right after the lust remark). It essentially assumes that the change happened gradually during the interim when there were no polls, but it can’t provide any evidence either way on whether the change was actually gradual or sudden.

    The last 4 polls before the lust article (which all came shortly after the RNC) show Carter ahead by an average of about 12 points, while the first 3 polls after the lust article have Carter ahead by about 4 points on average. But there was a month and a debate in between the two sets of polls, as well as the lust comment, so it’s hard to assign causality.

  3. Andy Rudalevige October 3, 2010 at 3:24 pm #

    So, was it really the best-selling issue of Playboy ever? This might be an interesting test of whether all those folks who “only read it for the articles” actually exist…