Can Politicians Make a Come Back from Sex Scandals?

by Erik Voeten on March 28, 2013 · 7 comments

in Campaigns and elections

Mark Sanford is running for Congress. David Petraeus may consider a run for President. In both cases there are major question marks about whether the American public may forgive them for their somewhat scandalous affairs.

A new working paper by David Doherty, Conor Dowling, and Michael Miller suggests that the passage of time may help. They ran a survey experiment in which the time since the past transgression was manipulated. Voters clearly weighed recent transgressions more heavily than past mistakes, although they didn’t fully discount history: the damage from a scandal that occurred twenty years ago was about half that from one that occurred just one year ago. Presumably participants in the experiment inferred from the mention of a scandal twenty years ago both that it was relevant and that it had not since been repeated.

William Doyle argues at CNN that Americans may forgive Petraeus because he has apologized and Americans like this. Maybe but I do not know the empirical evidence for that. Some experimental studies show that denial is more effective than apology and that silence may be more effective than both. Moreover, support from third parties is important. On this metric, Petraeus is clearly in better shape than Sanford who is struggling to get support from party notables, including Rick Santorum. I don’t know the literature well though so please add in comments.

{ 7 comments }

hjj March 28, 2013 at 4:04 pm

To further complicate matters, what if the candidate involved in the sex scandal is black. Really interesting paper that asks this question: Berinsky et al. “Sex and Race: Are Black Candidates More Likely to be Disadvantaged by Sex Scandals?” Politicial Behavior. 2011. 33(2):179-202

The manipulations are quite prescient.

Tali Mendelberg March 29, 2013 at 10:16 am

Kathleen McGraw did a great study of excuses vs justifications in the APSR.

Scott Monje March 29, 2013 at 10:16 am

Does it matter whether a given politician’s base supporters are conservative, religious, family-oriented sorts or woolly-headed ex-hippies?

acilius March 29, 2013 at 11:46 am

“denial is more effective than apology” Does it matter if the central figure in the scandal is already an elected official while s/he is making those denials? If so, his or her existing base of supporters often echo the denials in conversation with their own social circles, thus deepening their commitment to the candidate. Someone like Mr Petraeus, a well-known figure who had never run for office before he had his scandal, may not have been in a position to capitalize on that.

Andreas Moser March 30, 2013 at 7:27 am

It didn’t hurt Bill Clinton in the long run.

Grant March 30, 2013 at 8:07 pm

Clinton was the president of the late 90s, a good time in American history and he was replaced by George W. Bush. Even if he would have been forgiven anyway he was helped by 2000-2008.

Grant March 30, 2013 at 8:09 pm

The circumstances also matter. As governor Sanford left his state (without anyone officially knowing where the heck he was) to see his mistress in Argentina. Petraeus’ shortcomings stayed in America and weren’t as clearly uncaring about his responsibilities.

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