Skip to main content

Scandals Do Drive Voters — When Abuse of Power Is Involved

New research finds financial scandals hurt politicians more than moral ones, and the public particularly frowns on abuses of power.
  • Author:
  • Updated:

Political scandals are, in a sense, like car crashes: They attract our attention because they bring out our morbid curiosity. Will this be the end of a big-time politician’s career? Or will the voters simply shrug?

Newly published research suggests the answer depends upon the type of misbehavior that has been uncovered. It finds that while sex scandals tend to get the most media coverage, they have the least impact on voters’ views.

“On average, financial scandals are worse than moral ones, and abuses of power amplify the negative effects,” said University of Illinois political scientist Michael G. Miller. “Perhaps we’ve been so conditioned to sex scandals that people just brush them off.

“Whereas the ‘steward of the public trust’ idea — which is raised by scandals involving tax fraud, or misappropriation of the people’s money — has a much bigger impact in terms of voting behavior.”

Miller is co-author of a paper titled “Are Financial or Moral Scandals Worse? It Depends,” published in the October issue of the journal PS: Political Science and Politics. He and his colleagues, David Doherty of Loyola University and Conor Dowling of Yale University, conducted an experiment as part of the 2009 Cooperative Congressional Election Study.

The approximately 800 participants (a representative sample of the U.S. adult population) all read a brief statement describing the fictional Mark Jones, “a 44-year-old fourth term state representative” who “has been re-elected by wide margins in the last three elections.” One-third were told Jones was a Republican, while one-third were told he was a Democrat. The others were not provided with a party affiliation.

Most (but not all) were then informed that Jones had been caught up in one of four scandals. Some learned he was in a “moral scandal” (he has been having an affair for the past five years). Others learned he was in a “moral scandal with abuse of power” (he hired his mistress as a paid policy consultant two years into their affair).

Still others were told Jones was caught in a “financial scandal” (he owed the IRS more than $25,000 in unpaid income taxes). The final group was told about a “financial scandal with an abuse of power.” They learned of his unpaid taxes, and also received this additional information: “When the state auditor confronted him about this irregularity, Jones offered him a position as a paid policy consultant in exchange for not filing a formal complaint.”

All were then asked to rate how well they felt Jones was doing his job; their feelings about him as a person; and how likely they would be to vote for him in the next election.

The researchers found all four types of scandal made voters less likely to vote for Jones, compared to those who were not told of any misconduct. But the level of opposition to his retaining office varied enormously depending upon which scandal the participants were told about.

Simply having an affair had the least impact on participants’ willingness to vote for Jones, as well as for their evaluation of his job performance. It did impact their views of him personally, but relatively few people viewed this behavior as a disqualification to hold office.

Two other types of scandal — putting his mistress on the public payroll, and failing to pay taxes — both dampened people’s willingness to vote for Jones to a greater extent. But the financial scandal involving abuse of power — that is, the one in which he offered the auditor a job on the public payroll — had the biggest negative impact of all.

“People really do process this in a systematic way,” Miller said. “If someone gets involved in a sex scandal, we may not think they’re a very good person, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we’re going to throw the bum out of office.

“This paper was in the first round of publication when the Anthony Weiner scandal came out. People asked us all the time, ‘Given your findings, can Weiner survive.’ We said, ’There’s really no reason to think that he can’t. Had he not resigned, and not been redistricted out — given our findings, I think (he could have ridden it out).”

The most surprising finding, according to Miller, was that “people punish across party lines.” Study participants reactions had very similar reactions to the vignettes, regardless of whether Jones was identified as a member of their party or the opposition.

“Now, we did not stress the party of the political figure in the vignette. We only said ‘Democrat Mark Jones’ or ‘Republican Mark Jones.’ We didn’t say anything about the positions he had taken. It could be people were reading quickly and didn’t absorb it.

“I’m not convinced [the nonpartisan attitude reflected in these results] is actually accurate, given everything I see in politics,” Miller said. “We need more research.”

Another question the study raises but does not fully answer: What precisely constitutes an “abuse of power”? Misuse of taxpayer money is certainly covered by definition.

But what about the accusations that Herman Cain allegedly expected sexual favors in return for help in getting a job? Or that former U.S. Senator John Edwards used donor money to cover up the fact he had a child out of wedlock? Although government money isn't at issue in either case, both stories (if proven accurate) paint a portrait of a powerful person who breaks the rules to get his own way. Does that mean they cross the line?

The answer isn't clear. But this research suggests it's a key question, in that people are less willing to vote for people they feel have abused their authority. In contrast, revelations of private sexual misbehavior -- however much they boost ratings for television news shows -- don't weigh heavily when voters cast their ballots.

Sign up for the free e-newsletter.

"Like" Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add news to your site.