Why Don't More Americans Care About Chris Christie's Bridgegate? Political Science Explains

Unfortunately for the New Jersey governor, it also predicts that if Americans start caring, it's the sort of thing they won't easily forget.
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When it comes to Chris Christie's bizarre traffic scandal, there is a lot we don't know. We don't know what he knew, when he knew it, why he didn't know it, whom his administration was trying to punish, how many times they had created "traffic problems" before, or whether it will affect his presidential chances. (We don't even know if he's running!) All we know is that Americans seem to care about it much less than MSNBC's audience—for now.

A Pew poll from this week found the public paid little attention to Christie's Bridgegate—less than the polar vortex (which was, after all, truly nation-wide) or even the Washington debate over unemployment benefits and the jobless rate. Meanwhile, national opinion of the governor has barely budged.

But let's say the drip-drip doesn't stop and Christie's scandal takes a bigger bite out of his approval rating and national profile. Is this the sort of thing voters will still be preoccupied by in two years, when the Republican primaries get rolling?

Scandals come in many flavors, and different scandals tend to enact different penalties. Corruption scandals (i.e., bribery or obstruction of justice) cost incumbents about eight percentage points, on average. Next, financial and sex scandals shave off five points. But political scandals (like, say, jamming traffic on a bridge to punish a New Jersey political enemy)? They don’t appear to matter at all, according to a study last year by political scientist Scott Basinger

Although sex scandals clearly make for the easiest headlines, a 2013 study found that the most durable scandals are substantive rather than salacious. Political science has already shown that half of American legislators have been implicated, somehow, in scandals; that politicians involved in scandals are viewed less favorably; that they attract higher-quality opponents and lose votes in the following election.

But researchers David Doherty, Conor M. Dowling, and Michael G. Miller wanted to know what sort of scandals "stick." So they administered two online surveys, creating fake representatives undergoing a sex scandal or a tax scandal. Some participants would read that the scandals (e.g., sleeping with a staffer, or income-tax evasion) were recent. Others would read they happened decades ago. The results were fairly striking: Not only did people care much more about the tax scandal overall, but also they discounted the sex scandal dramatically when it happened years in the past. As for income-tax evasion, it didn't seem to matter if the news was new or old: It hurt favorability about the same.

Their conclusion is that some scandals don't tell us much about enduring character flaws, and voters are willing to overlook them. But scandals that hit closer to the duties of office are harder to forgive.

I'm not about to a make a prediction about how tens of millions of Republican voters will savor Bridgegate as a part of the stew of variables they'll have swooshing in their heads in 2016. But if the research is instructive, it seems to me (a) that wonky political scandals, like retributive bridge-congestion, are often too esoteric for the public to consider deeply, but (b) if Christie does take a hit in the next few weeks, this is precisely the sort of character-of-office scandal that doesn't go away over time.

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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