Science of Scandal: Why Politicians Bounce Back

New York politician Anthony Weiner participates in a Pride parade in 2008, three years before a sexting scandal would force his resignation from Congress.

Whether it's former Rep. Anthony Weiner making a comeback from texting photos of his genitals to Twitter followers or former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford securing a House seat after he "hiked the Appalachian trail" in 2009 (his cover story for visiting his Argentinean mistress), some politicians seem simply immune to scandal.

And new research reveals why: The public has a short memory. Scandals hurt politicians in the short term, according to the study, but they typically regain nearly two-thirds of their lost support by the next election cycle. Because incumbents typically win by wide margins, this quick recovery moves them out of the danger zone of losing their seats.

"The upshot seems to be that time really does heal all wounds for those members who do survive," said study researcher Vincent Moscardelli, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut.

Post-scandal fallout

Moscardelli and his colleagues were struck by the different fates of scandal-ridden politicians. Some resign or retire, others are defeated in reelection, while some hang on like nothing ever happened, Moscardelli told LiveScience. [7 Great Dramas in Congressional History]

"Is this an example of 'what doesn't kill you makes you stronger,' or an example of 'time heals all wounds,' or some other possibility?" he said.

To find out, he and his colleagues sorted through records of U.S. House of Representative races between 1972 and 2006, looking for incumbents who suffered some sort of scandal while in office. The researchers defined scandal as incidents that triggered investigation by the House Ethics Committee.

In that time period, there were 88 scandals, 65 of which involved incumbents who would later run for reelection. The first finding that jumped out was no surprise: Scandals really do hurt politicians. Scandal makers were three times more likely to resign or retire; three times more likely to be defeated in the next general election; and 11 times more likely to be defeated in a primary election than politicians who were scandal-free.

Forgive and forget?

But incumbents very rarely lose their seats, Moscardelli said, so even an elevenfold increase in losses translates to only a few actual turnovers.

A scandal costs an incumbent about 13 percentage points in their margin of victory for the next election, the researchers found. Most win re-election by much more than that, anyway. But even if those 13 points dipped them into a danger zone, they recover quickly. House of Representative seats are up for grabs every two years. By two years post-scandal, incumbents get back two-thirds of the support they lost. Within four to six years, they're back to prescandal levels as if nothing had ever happened. (The researchers controlled for money spent in elections, incumbent seniority, partisanship of the district and other factors that could influence reelection chances.)

Driving this trend, the researchers found, is a small but important increase in voter turnout in the first election postscandal. After an incumbent scandal, the politician's district is likely to see about a 1.6 percentage point increase in the number of people voting. That's a small number, but it matters because most of them vote for the other guy.

"One primary reason that incumbents involved in scandals suffer is because of the mobilization of new voters who have been energized or excited by the scandal and who are turning out to throw the bum out," Moscardelli said. [The 5 Strangest Presidential Elections in US History]

These angry voters are typically the sort who don't make it to the polls regularly, Moscardelli said, so they likely lose interest by the next election cycle, removing the scandal-plagued incumbent's disadvantage.

A brief vulnerability

Moscardelli and his colleagues reported their findings June 12 in the journal Social Science Quarterly. The study is limited by a small number of cases, but another recent study led by Loyola University political scientist David Doherty reaches similar conclusions from a different angle. In that study, presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association in April, researchers presented participants with vignettes about a politician who had an extramarital affair sometime in the past. The participants were asked to rate how likely they were to vote for this politician.

The results revealed the negative impact of a scandal that occurred 20 years ago is only half that of a scandal that occurred one year ago. Again, time seemed to clear the way for a political comeback.

Scandals are important, Moscardelli said, because in a time when it's hard to unseat an incumbent, a financial, sexual or moral misstep is one of the few "ins" challengers have to win.

Scandals "represent one of these rare opportunities to dislodge otherwise safe incumbents," Moscardelli said. "But you've got to do it quickly."

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