How much is a scandal worth politically?



Welcome to Science Friday.  A day when we look at some research and discuss the findings and/or implications.

When I was on my rant about Mark Sanford’s “win”, I came across this gem from Nate Silver :  Sanford and the Electoral Effect of Sex Scandals, which in turn lead me to this study:

The Impact of Incumbent Scandals on Senate Elections, 1974-2008

by Nicholas Chad Long of St. Edward’s University.

Scandals were categorized on the nature of scandal (abuse of office, financial, sex) to see if there were differences.

The results reveal that those senators seeking reelection while confronting a scandal suffered a six percent decrease from their expected vote. They also attracted higher quality challengers who spent more money against them

Scandals involving immoral behavior hurt incumbents the most, while financial improprieties hurt them the least.

Another KEY quote from the paper is as follows:

For a scandal to have any impact on an election, potential voters have to know about it and care about it. The former is the job of the press. Voters rely on journalists to provide vital information about candidates, so that informed decisions can be made at the ballot box. Though the sources for that information are changing, the valuable role that the press plays in providing it is not (Graber 2009; Iyengar and McGrady 2006).

The study is also worth reading for the review of the literature on the subject.  It covers party switching, voter turnout, campaign finance violations, corruption charges, and partisan differences.

Conclusions about Political Scandal


How much is a political scandal worth?

“The coefficients are basically the same. Incumbents committing financial improprieties suffered the smallest decline (4.3%), while those displaying behavior seen as immoral suffered the largest decline (6.5%). This leads one to conclude that voters do not necessarily care about the nature of the transgression, but only that a transgression has occurred.”

“While there was essentially no difference in the number of Democrats or Republicans involved in scandals, the results reveal that voters did punish Republicans slightly more than Democrats. The results also show that incumbents, regardless of party, suffered most from objectionable behavior related to matters of morality, such as sexual indiscretions. The vast majority of incumbents were inclined to seek reelection, even in a hostile environment, rather than abandon their Senate careers. The evidence proves that, in fact, two-thirds were victorious in November. So while scandals blunt the incumbency advantage, they do not eradicate it.”

Gotta love science.

My hypothesis is that candidates not having the advantage of incumbency suffer much greater.  

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