The Spitzer Myth: Sex Scandals Are Not Political Poison

Political comebacks after tawdry behavior aren't the exception. They're the rule.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

Eliot Spitzer is running for office again, just like Anthony Weiner and Mark Sanford before him. This trio of would-be sex-scandal comebacks has prompted many to speculate that Americans are not as shocked by sex scandals as they once were, and that we live in an age that is setting a new bar for shamelessness. As the New York Times put it in the Sunday evening story announcing Spitzer's return: "His re-emergence comes in an era when politicians ... have shown that public disapproval, especially over sexual misconduct, can be fleeting."

There seems to be a pervasive sense that sex scandals were once career-killers, and that if Spitzer and Weiner succeed as Sanford did, they will have accomplished something rare indeed. But there are plenty of examples of politicians who weathered the storm of scandal and got reelected, from Louisiana Senator David Vitter, reelected in 2010 with 57 percent of the vote three years after admitting he patronized an escort service, to Bill Clinton, elected president after numerous so-called "bimbo eruptions."

Technically, neither Spitzer, Weiner, or Sanford was tossed out of office for his improprieties -- all three resigned or retired. We can't know whether they would have lost had they stood pat. (Being politicians, they likely consulted pollsters who told them things weren't looking good.) But Newt Gingrich's marital infidelities didn't drive him from office; Ted Kennedy declined to resign after Chappaquiddick and never lost a Senate election, though he didn't win the presidency. Back in 1884, Grover Cleveland was elected president despite publicly acknowledging an illegitimate child. After Arkansas Rep. Wilbur Mills was arrested for drunken driving in 1974, an Argentinian stripper jumped out of the car; less than a month later, Mills was reelected with 60 percent of the vote. Rep. Scott DesJarlais of Tennessee was recently reelected despite multiple affairs and a tape recording of the congressman, a medical doctor who opposes abortion rights, pressuring one mistress to have an abortion.

There's plenty of precedent for Spitzer et al. to believe voters will see past their abhorrent behavior. But there are also plenty of counter-examples, like Gary Hart, who tried and failed to get past a sex scandal in his 1988 presidential campaign. So which is the exception, and which is the rule? Political scientists have attempted to answer this question, naturally. Scott Basinger, a researcher at the University of Houston, published a study in the Political Research Quarterly last year in which he compared the fates of 237 scandal-tarred members of the House of Representatives from 1973 to 2010. (Democrats accounted for 63 percent of the scandals, Republicans 37 percent, but there were more Democrats than Republicans in Congress over that period.) Basinger looked at all types of scandals, from sex to corruption to campaign-finance violations.

Of the congressmen implicated in scandals, 19 percent chose to resign or retire their seats; 8 percent lost in primaries. Both rates were far higher than the average for non-scandal-tarred pols. But 73 percent of disgraced incumbents made it to their next general election, and of those, 81 percent won. On average, scandals cost their subjects 5 percent of the vote. Other research supports Basinger's findings. Researchers have also proven what we intuitively sense: The more time passes post-scandal, the better the politician does. Voters have short memories.

Does the public view sex scandals differently than other types of scandals? Basinger looked at this too. Corruption scandals, he found, hurt politicians the most, costing them an average of 7.8 percentage points. Sex scandals and financial scandals (like tax evasion or taking kickbacks) each depressed vote margins by 5.3 points. Scandals involving campaign violations had no statistically significant effect on vote share at all.

In sum, voters do seem to care about sex scandals, but not that much. Basinger wonders if some politicians overestimate scandals' potential fallout when they resign right away, like former Rep. Chris Lee, who stepped down the same day he was revealed to have sent shirtless pictures of himself to a woman he met on Craigslist. "Given that my evidence shows you only lose about 5 percent, I would think it would be worth trying to hang on," Basinger said.

There are, of course, other considerations that go into stepping down -- a politician may want to forestall more damaging revelations, or, like Spitzer, may be facing a public that's already soured on him for other reasons. But one thing seems clear: If Spitzer and Weiner manage to join Sanford in getting elected post-sex scandal, they won't be signaling a bold new trend. They'll be doing what politicians have always done: getting in trouble and then getting elected anyway.