Sex Scandals and Race

by Joshua Tucker on January 30, 2012 · 7 comments

in Campaigns and elections,Experimental Analysis

With Herman Cain endorsing Newt Gingrich over the weekend, one can’t help but notice that one of these two had a sex scandal at least partially knock him out of the race, whereas the other one seems to have survived fairly widespread allegations of marital infidelity and kept on going.

While there are of course many differences between Cain’s and Gingrich’s purported affairs—one important one certainly being that Gingrich’s is old news whereas Cain’s was a more recent development—recently published research in the journal Political Behavior suggests another possible factor: the race of the candidates. In the previous US presidential election cycle, Adam Berinsky, Vincent Hutchings, Tali Mendelberg, Lee Shaker, and Nicholas Valentino conducted experiments to examine people’s reactions to stimuli suggesting that either Barack Obama or, ironically enough, John Edwards were potentially guilty of “sexual indiscretion” (p.185; see p.198-200 for actual cues). Here’s their summary of the article and its findings:

A growing body of work suggests that exposure to subtle racial cues prompts white voters to penalize black candidates, and that the effects of these cues may influence outcomes indirectly via perceptions of candidate ideology. We test hypotheses related to these ideas using two experiments based on national samples. In one experiment, we manipulated the race of a candidate (Barack Obama vs. John Edwards) accused of sexual impropriety. We found that while both candidates suffered from the accusation, the scandal led respondents to view Obama as more liberal than Edwards, especially among resentful and engaged whites. Second, overall evaluations of Obama declined more sharply than for Edwards. In the other experiment, we manipulated the explicitness of the scandal, and found that implicit cues were more damaging for Obama than explicit ones. (emphasis added)

The full article is available here.

[Photo credit: Mark America.]

{ 7 comments }

Anonymous January 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm

I can’t speak to the experiment in the article, but as far as Gingrich and Cain go, we shouldn’t forget that the allegations against Cain were that he had committed the crime of sexual harassment, while those against Gingrich were that he had had consensual affairs outside of marriage. If all charges are true, then Cain broke the law (and continues to deny it), while Gingrich cheated on his wife (and now acknowledges it, even if he bites the head off of people who bring it up).

I doubt that’s the only reason the scandals played out differently, but it’s probably a reason they SHOULD have.

Joshua Tucker January 30, 2012 at 2:34 pm

Absolutely – there are lots of differences, and you’ve pointed out an important one that I left out. Point was not to suggest this was determining factor by a long shot, but rather to highlight interesting research showing that the effects of sexual indiscretion may be moderated by race.

Brett Keller January 30, 2012 at 10:01 pm

Anonymous already mentioned this… but I think it deserves a rant or two more. It’s not just an ‘important difference’ that one had affairs and the other (allegedly) sexually assaulted someone. The two offenses should be in completely different categories. When someone — whether a pundit or blogger — conflates affairs and sexual assault by mentioning them without making a *very* strong distinction they both demonstrate and perpetuate a culture that says these are the same. Really, really, not OK! These are not two different types of “sex scandals” — one is a sex scandal and one is an attempted rape scandal.

Joshua Tucker January 31, 2012 at 12:10 am

Brett: Point taken, and I will clearly note that this was not the distinction that Berinsky et al. were testing. Following up on the final point in Anonymous’s comments, there is a normative and positive component here. We might expect normatively that people ought to react differently, but positively we don’t know if this is the case unless we test for it.

Eric January 31, 2012 at 3:51 pm

Is there racial profiling going on in these comments, in which the sexual harassment that Cain was accused of is now called sexual assault?

Brett Keller February 1, 2012 at 7:51 pm

Eric — I don’t think so. Many headlines described it as sexual assault, which I think is accurate. For example: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/nov/07/sharon-bialek-herman-cain-allegations Trying to “force yourself” on someone goes beyond sexual harassment. What was he accused of?:
“[Cain] suddenly reached over and put his hand on my leg, under my skirt and reached for my genitals. He also grabbed my head and brought it towards his crotch.” (from http://www.inquisitr.com/157572/sharon-bialek-herman-cain-sexual-assault/)

Jon M February 1, 2012 at 3:26 pm

What made them choose to compare two real candidates? There are clearly other differences between John Edwards and Barack Obama.

Seems a shame to unnecessarily undermine the experimental design by using candidates who voters will have existing perceptions of and be aware of narratives which cannot be experimentally controlled.

Why not just make up a description of a congressman and manipulate the race as the only feature?

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