Will Voters Care About Hillary's Email Scandal? - Pacific Standard

Will Voters Care About Hillary's Email Scandal?

Only if she were a Republican, or running low on cash, according to research.
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Hillary Clinton giving a keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign Annual Dinner in 2004. (Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

Hillary Clinton giving a keynote address at the Human Rights Campaign Annual Dinner in 2004. (Photo: Everett Collection/Shutterstock)

“Voters do not give a shit. They do not even give a fart,” contended veteran Democratic strategist, Paul Begala. He was talking, of course, about the recent political scandal involving Hillary Clinton's use of her personal email account to send government emails.

"Find me one persuadable voter who agrees with HRC [Hillary Rodham Clinton] on the issues but will vote against her because she has a non-archival-compliant email system," Begala added, "and I’ll kiss your ass in Macy’s window and say it smells like roses."

Begala's words, however colorful, raise a very important question about democracy: Do voters care about scandals, especially something so obscure? Recent research on past American federal elections suggests that Begala is right: Clinton will be just fine. The scandal might only hurt her if she has trouble raising money, as scandals appear to hurt candidates more in the purse strings than elections.

The University of Houston's Brandon Rottinghaus found that, during primary season, candidates involved in a scandal rake in $40,000 less per day, compared to their scandal-free rivals. Scandals may also cost candidates key endorsements, further eroding their final support. But, when it comes to their likelihood of winning key elections, scandals may in fact help them.

In the general election, serious corruption charges, such as bribery or obstruction of justice, cost candidates a significant eight percent vote share drop. Financial and disclosure issues—like Clinton's email scandal—have "zero effect."

To measure how scandals affected electoral outcomes in a primary, Rottinghaus looked at candidates' performance in public betting pools. Traders in political futures markets risk money trying to predict the outcome of the key presidential primary held in Iowa every four years. Rottinghaus notes that the value of a candidate in the Iowa futures market is a decent indicator of actual electoral outcomes, and is therefore a good measurement of the precise impact of a scandal. He finds that, though a scandal hurts candidates' fundraising efforts, it actually raises their values on the futures market (and therefore, their chance of winning more votes).

Why would a scandal help a candidate? "It may be that any publicity is good publicity," Rottinghaus surmised. "The depth of this negative effect is most prominent in the less funds raised and fewer endorsements garnered. Republicans may be more heavily chastised for hypocrisy in government," he concluded.

Some scandals matter more than others. Another University of Houston professor, Scott Basinger, found that, overall, 40 percent of candidates don't survive a political scandal. In the general election, serious corruption charges, such as bribery or obstruction of justice, cost candidates a significant eight percent vote share drop. Financial and disclosure issues—like Clinton's email scandal—have "zero effect."

And don't think that any one political party is full of angels; the most serious scandals are shared equally by both sides of the aisle. "The parties are evenly divided in corruption and sex scandals," Basinger wrote. But, like his colleague Rottinghaus, Basinger noted that Republican voters tend to punish their candidates for misdeeds. In 2006, scandal-tainted Republicans suffered an eight percent drop in vote share compared to what they received in 2004, while Democrats only took at two percent hit.

So, will Clinton survive the email brouhaha? The evidence says most likely so. Even before announcing her (potential) candidacy, Clinton had an incredible amount of support and a colossal fundraising machine.

Maybe voters don't see email disclosure laws as much of an issue, or maybe voters care more about other problems. Either way, if Clinton's presidential bid has obstacles, this current email scandal isn't one of them.

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