Can Anthony Weiner Survive?

by John Sides on June 8, 2011 · 15 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Legislative Politics

It’s a topic that people are discussing.  Here’s some interesting new research that sheds a little light.  The paper (pdf) is by David Doherty, Conor Dowling, and Michael Miller.  In a 2009 survey, they presented respondents with one of four vignettes about a hypothetical politician enmeshed in a scandal.  The politicians was randomly described as a Republican, Democrat, or no party.  The vignettes all began this way:

{Democrat/Republican/No party} Mark Jones is a 44-year old fourth term state representative. He was first elected in 2002, and has been re-elected by wide margins in the last three elections. Mark lives with his wife, Diane, and has three children, Eric, Alex and Brian.

The vignettes then varied in two ways.  First, the scandal was either moral (infidelity) or financial (tax evasion):

{Moral} Recently, reports have confirmed that Representative Jones has been having an extra-marital affair for the past five years with 29 year-old Sandra Mason.
{Financial}Recently, reports have confirmed that Representative Jones has failed to pay over $25,000 in income taxes over the past 10 years.

Second, they varied in whether there was an additional abuse of power for each type of scandal:

{Moral} …Jones hired Mason as a paid policy consultant about two years into their affair.
{Financial} …When the state auditor confronted him about this irregularity, Jones offered him a position as a paid policy consultant in exchange for not filing a formal complaint.

Doherty and colleagues examine how these vignettes affected respondents’ willingness to vote for Jones, their assessments of his job performance, and their assessments of him as a person.  Here are the results:

The vignettes all had a negative effect on views of Jones, as you might suspect.  But there are some interesting nuances.  First, the financial scandal tended to matter more than the moral scandal.  Second, the financial scandal’s impact was augmented by the abuse of power, but the abuse of power had less impact in the moral scandal.  Third, the moral scandal had more impact on evaluations of Jones as a person than on evaluations of his job performance.

So, back to Weiner.  The paper suggests the following:

  • He is probably better off having committed a moral offense rather than a financial one.

  • I wouldn’t say that his moral offense, however repugnant (and, whew, it is repugnant, and it looks really repugnant when your wife is pregnant) involved an abuse of power.  That probably helps.

  • But obviously he is going to take a hit in terms of perceptions of him as a person.  That could matter.  Elections aren’t entirely about job performance.  Here is a one piece of research (gated) by Carolyn Funk on the effect of perceptions of candidate traits.

Even more crucial than how voters perceive the scandal now is who is on the ballot in 2012.  A bigger factor than anything that Weiner does going forward or snap polls of what New Yorkers currently think is whether he attracts a credible challenger.  Of course, if his district gets redrawn, then that’s another issue entirely.  But assuming that his district is mostly intact, the question mark is his opponent.  It matters a lot who voters will be comparing Weiner to.  If it’s some nobody, then he might win.  If it’s someone with prior political experience and solid ties to the district—this story mentions Eric Gioia—then Weiner very well could lose.

Ultimately, I tend to agree with Matt Yglesias that not resigning is an important step toward surviving a sex scandal.  But this only works if, as Matt writes, fellow members of the party then feel forced to defend you.  That isn’t happening right now.   Quite the opposite, in fact.  The pressure from Pelosi and colleagues might be enough to push him out, no matter what.


Trostlos June 9, 2011 at 3:36 am

I think the two examples of the abuse of power aren’t quite comparable. In the moral one, he ‘just’ gives a job to a loved one. In the financial one he get caught and then tries to use his power to save himself.

To be comparable the moral abuse of power should be changed, imho, along the line that his affair wanted to tell his wife and to silence her he offered her a job as a paid policy consultant.

Andrew Gelman June 9, 2011 at 10:17 am

That is one ugly graph!

Greg Marx June 9, 2011 at 1:31 pm


Do you know of any research that examines how likely fellow party members are to stick by a politician who’s embroiled in a scandal, and what factors might influence the decision? I imagine a lot of the factors that might play a role would be hard to observe/quantify, but, just based on the gravity of Weiner’s offense compared to what other politicians have survived in the past, I’m surprised how ready Dems are to throw him under the bus. Is there any evidence to support the anecdotal sense that Democrats are less likely to close ranks?

John Sides June 9, 2011 at 3:26 pm

Greg: I don’t know of any research on this. I also asked Brendan Nyhan, who has done a lot of research on political scandals. He noted that we typically only observe the behavior of most fellow partisans when the scandal is “big” and responses are divided along partisan lines (e.g., the Clinton impeachment).

In general, I’m not that sympathetic to arguments that suggest that Democrats are weaker or not as well-organized or somehow inferior to Republicans on these or similar dimensions. The GOP certainly didn’t close ranks around Chris Lee, for example.

John Jay June 9, 2011 at 3:30 pm


Why is this necessarily “repugnant”? Why do you presume to know the nature of Weiner and his wife’s relationship and what they consider permissible/enjoy?

John Jay June 9, 2011 at 3:37 pm

To be clear about my objection . . .

There’s a standard narrative that once two people are in a relationship, that relationship must be closed. In reality, millions of Americans, including millions of married ones, live in relationships that are to some degree open.

I don’t find anything morally objectionable about adults choosing to live their lives this way. Sure, if Weiner and his wife had an understanding that their relationship was closed, then it’s becomes more complicated. But that’s a big assumption to make. We also don’t know anything else about the dynamics of their relationship. I don’t think we are in a position to presume to know what Weiner’s wife is thinking or what the nature of their relationship is. Consequently, I don’t think we are in a position to describe his behavior as “repugnant.”

John Sides June 9, 2011 at 7:48 pm

Given all of the apologizing Anthony Weiner did to his wife in that press conference, I think it’s safe to say that his behavior was not a mutually agreed-upon aspect of their marriage.

As to whether it’s “repugnant,” well, that’s just my opinion. Call me old-fashioned.

John Jay June 12, 2011 at 3:29 pm

“Given all of the apologizing Anthony Weiner did to his wife in that press conference, I think it’s safe to say that his behavior was not a mutually agreed-upon aspect of their marriage.”

Perhaps, but let’s assume they do have some form of an open relationship. It’s not obvious to me that it’d be the “correct” choice politically-speaking for Weiner to stand up before the press and say, “Don’t worry. My wife and I live in an open relationship, so this was acceptable to her.”

Frank in midtown June 9, 2011 at 5:49 pm

D Vitter (R-LA) certainly engaged in both unethical and criminal behavior, did you favor his resignation or did you agree that this was between him, his creator (who had forgiven him according to Vitter,) and his wife?

Michael G. Miller June 9, 2011 at 6:29 pm


FYI our experiment also randomly varied the party of the politician committing the scandal. We observed no apparent willingness of copartisans to forgive bad behavior or to punish representatives of the opposite party to a greater degree. Of course, outside of an experimental setting, things get much more complicated, but it didn’t show up in our results.

JP June 9, 2011 at 6:36 pm

To me this might be very naughty, and indeed reprehensible as a newly married dude, but it’s certainly not criminal. No where near it as a matter of fact. Stupid? Oh yes, in spades. But I’d trade Weiner’s stupid for anyone of the oh 100 or so leading GOP Congresscritters who think defaulting on our debt obligations is not a.) crazy and/or b.) very harmful. That to me is already more consequential to the general population. [See Stan Collender on that score]:

This BS is just modern day idiotic voyeurism and the fact that the modern day redbaiter and general all around lying, racist scumbag, but ever ready media darling Breitbart coordinated this media circus, (along with Darrell Isa’s office evidently), is where most of the real opprobrium should lie. That level of sneaky, smarmy secret surveillance for the purposes of pure partisan personal destruction is a disgusting affront to the dignity and even safety of everyone.

This whole bundle of miserable crap? Is little more than ‘Adult play’, between consenting adults who’ll never meet and like to flirt a bit. End of story, most likely. And sorry, it seems to be increasingly incredibly common, not too ‘dangerous’ and should be of little or no interest to the state. EXCEPT for involvement with Known (under aged) minors, and explicit and detailed flirtations with same. This did not happen. Ergo? No need for all the damn hysterics.

So a deeply unpopular and even yes, unattractive guy doing stupid, but not demonstrably harmful things to anyone but himself & family. Not any of my business, nor anyone else. The fact that it’s Become ‘news’ somehow 24/7 is a testament to how far we’ve fallen as a nation and a community of thinking citizens once fairly capable of self governance. No longer evidently. More reasons why we’re both doomed And screwed as both a nation & polity.

Mark B. June 10, 2011 at 9:46 am

I have a similar object/concern as John Jay, but from a slightly different angle.

It seems that the authors are assuming that the sex scandal is moral and the tax evasion is not. This may be true, but couldn’t a person just as easily think that the sex scandal isn’t a moral violation, but tax evasion is? Or that both are moral violations? Or both are not? After reading Linda Skitka’s work ( see also her publications page), I am always uncomfortable when researchers make these kinds of assumptions.

Eric Mill June 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm

Maybe you can draw some relative conclusions from this (“moral” scandals being easier than “financial” scandals), but it seems murky to me — because voters won’t be confronting a “hypothetical” candidate that they first read about in a vignette. Weiner’s voters already have images, preconceptions, and expectations about Weiner that will play into how they react to a particular scandal he’s in.

Since this is dominantly an emotional scandal and not a legal one, voters’ emotional reactions are far more important, and aren’t easily comparable to how they react to a clinical series of stories about “other people’s” representatives.

memory foam mattress topper October 20, 2011 at 5:51 am

End of story, most likely. And sorry, it seems to be increasingly incredibly common, not too ‘dangerous’ and should be of little or no interest to the state.

flat screen tv stands November 14, 2011 at 1:12 pm

I don’t think we are in a position to presume to know what Weiner’s wife is thinking or what the nature of their relationship is.

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