HOUSTON — Remember when a single scandal was enough to sink a politician’s career? Well, times appear to be changing. Researchers from the University of Houston find that scandals just don’t carry the weight they used to with voters.
“Scandals don’t hit like they used to,” says Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences. “Politicians involved are able to survive them because you have media much more divided on political terms. You have people who are more partisan and only look at partisan outcomes, and in an odd way, scandals help increase fundraising for some members who are involved in those scandals.”
From Watergate to Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the 1990s, modern American politics are certainly no stranger to controversy. However, there’s seemingly a new scandal every other week in recent years. Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tapes, impeachments, and ongoing legal issues immediately come to mind. Meanwhile, President Joe Biden’s 2020 election bid succeeded despite his son Hunter’s various scandals.
In an effort to better understand the ever-changing impact of scandals on a politicians’ ability to survive in office, Prof. Rottinghaus analyzed data encompassing presidential, gubernatorial, and congressional scandals between 1972 and 2021.
Study authors defined a scandal as any incident involving allegations of illegal, unethical, or immoral wrongdoing. They found that the negative consequences tied to scandals tend to vary across time and institutions. For example, scandals during the Watergate era usually led to more resignations in Congress, but by the ‘90s there were far fewer resignations among White House officials.
Fast forward to the Trump administration, and White House officials did not survive in office at rates greater than past eras. Despite that, politicians generally survive scandals more often in this current polarized era. This hints at the changing role of political scandals, researchers say.
Partisanship, researchers theorize, reduces the negative impact of scandal on certain incumbent politicians. Such figures already largely rely on their base, which will not be as critical of the politicians getting caught in scandals.
“This is because they want to see their side win and the other side lose,” Prof. Rottinghaus explains in a university release.
Looking at the media specifically, Prof. Rottinghaus adds because it is more polarized than in past political eras, people nowadays tend to consume only media that fits their political preferences.
“That means people are getting only one side of the story. If a politician gets caught in a scandal, that politician can claim the other side is out to get them politically and your base will still like you, despite the scandal.”
Paradoxically, small scandals can sometimes be beneficial for fundraising. For instance, consider U.S. Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert. The research team says they can make outlandish statements, then send out fundraising appeals and attract many small dollar donors to contribute to their campaigns.
Study authors’ methodology included three new data sets of scandals involving presidents, members of Congress, and governors at the state level over the past five decades. They charted the duration of political, personal and financial scandal endured by elected officials. Next, they analyzed which factors may quicken the “end” of a scandal; defined as when the scandal ends negatively for the elected official. The ensuing results clarify how many politicians survive scandals (or do not), and if the political climate exacerbates the scandal.
Prior to this research, Prof. Rottinghaus’ data had been limited to the middle of President Barack Obama’s last term. Now, he has data spanning Donald Trump’s presidency, allowing researchers to assess if Trump changed the way scandals affected the American public – something they call the “Trump Effect.”
“The answer is a tentative yes to that,” Prof. Rottinghaus explains. “Trump didn’t change the game, but he altered in some ways how scandals affect politicians generally. Although he himself was able to survive these allegations, a lot of his cabinet members did not, yet they did hold on a little longer than they would have in the pre-polarized era.”
That era begins around the mid-1990s during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.
“That’s the point where you see scandals matter a lot more.”
All in all, Prof. Rottinghaus concludes his study finds scandals do not have as great an impact as they once did. Still, the impact also depends heavily on whether the politician is a president, governor, or member of Congress.
The study is published in the journal Political Research Quarterly.