Friday, April 12, 2013

Apparently It's Not Self-Evident: No, Voters Don't Like Adulterers

Lately there's been a bit of a media obsession over Mark Sanford and Anthony Weiner, both of whom are walking the long road of political rehabilitation from sex scandals. Stories of redemption and resurgence are—forgive the wording—sexy, so the media understandably eats them up. But the press may have gone a little too far this week, as usually respectable news sources have been buzzing about political comebacks as if they are a thing—a well-documented, laudable phenomenon. They're not. They almost never happen. Maybe that's why all the articles I've seen this week inexplicably trying to argue that they do are at best stretches and at worst misleading and inapplicable.

One of the fallacies I've seen the most often is that, as the Washington Post's The Fix put it, "the public loves comeback stories and second chances." Perhaps nowhere was that view so baselessly and brazenly put forth than in a Simon van Zuylen–Wood piece in Philadelphia Magazine today:
"Having fooled around and abandoned two ailing wives not only didn’t hurt Gingrich, but it may have helped him. For without sin, there is no chance at redemption. And what kind of a moving political narrative is that?"
Oh good. Narrative. As we've learned from baseball, that never gets in the way of accurate, data-driven analysis.

The only evidence that either The Fix or Philly Mag gives for their view that past sex scandals actually help candidates is anecdotal. The Fix cites Mark Sanford's so-far triumphant electoral comeback, and Van Zuylen–Wood quotes a Newt Gingrich voter about the virtues of forgiveness. The problem is that the overall data don't support these isolated incidents. Van Zuylen–Wood himself cites two political-science studies that directly contradict his thesis. One, despite Van Zuylen–Wood's claim that it "suggest[s] that time heals all wounds after scandal," concludes that voters still penalize candidates for sex scandals that occurred as long ago as 20 years. The other, by Scott Basinger, finds that past scandals cost candidates an average of five percentage points at the ballot box.

I'd argue that this was certainly the case for star witness for the defense Mark Sanford. Far from embracing him and eating up his story of absolution, as the claim goes, South Carolina voters have appeared quite tepid toward him. For a guy with a large fundraising lead and an even larger lead in name recognition, Sanford could corral only 37% of the vote in the initial GOP primary, and, in the runoff, a full 39% of Republicans could not bring themselves to vote for him. Now, in an R+11 district, he is trailing in the polls. Without his sex scandal, is there really any question he would crush any taker on this deep-red turf? As for Newt Gingrich, let's not forget that he ultimately failed to win the presidency the year of his supposed comeback, taking only 14% of the national popular vote in the GOP presidential primaries. It's pretty clear that these comeback kids have only earned votes despite their tawdry pasts, not because of some inspiring tale of redemption and remorse.

Sanford and Gingrich were two of the six supposed political comebacks highlighted by another The Fix posting this week that attempted to show that such second acts were possible. We've already shown that Gingrich's comeback was a failed one and that the jury is still very much out on Sanford's; neither example really proves anything. What about the other four?

Well, three were not actual comebacks: neither Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer, nor Anthony Weiner has faced voters since their improprieties. While Clinton probably could win election to any office he wanted if he ran for something today, that's a huge unknown for Weiner—The Fix's Sean Sullivan freely admits that this is a "TBD comeback." Spitzer's, meanwhile, was literally only a comeback as far as the media was concerned—consisting of his own TV show, and nothing more. (Dollars to doughnuts he's not winning any popularity contests anytime soon.)

The sixth example was Senator David Vitter, who has indeed survived electorally despite owning up to a prostitution scandal back in 2007. This is an OK example that does indeed show how it is possible to weather a scandal and come out on the other side. But it is not instructive to the Sanford and Weiner cases—which, after all, are why we're interested in this topic in the first place—because Vitter did not take the fall, resign, fade from public view, and then try to return to elected office. In other words, he technically didn't "come back" from anything, because he never left in the first place.

The Basinger study—which found that, while scandals do hurt politicians, they are rarely fatal—has the same flaw. While it is accurate in finding that many scandals fail to topple their transgressors, it doesn't address what happens when they do fall and then try to rise from the ashes years later. Again, political comebacks—emphasis on the "come back" origins of that word—are what we're concerned with here. In fact, history suggests that politicians who left office in disgrace are almost never able to return to their old line of work. Those long odds for Sanford and Weiner will be the topic of the next post here on Baseballot.

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