Political comebacks have been in vogue lately. First Mark Sanford, the former South Carolina governor who was the laughingstock of the nation after an extramarital affair in 2009, won the recent Republican primary in the special election for the South Carolina First District. Then, in last week's New York Times Magazine, erstwhile congressman and sexter Anthony Weiner revealed his interest in the New York City mayoralty.
There seems to be a consensus that, not only are Sanford's and Weiner's comebacks possible, but also that they wouldn't be unusual. This couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, if you look at the history of politicians attempting to come back from scandal, Weiner faces extremely long odds, and Sanford is extremely lucky to have gotten as far as he has.
We at Baseballot dipped into the archives and identified 82 federal and statewide elected officials over the past 20 years who have faced scandal—sex or otherwise—while in office. Only 10 can be said to have definitively survived the charges leveled at them. Four more (Bill Clinton, Kathy Augustine, Scott DesJarlais, and John Swallow) remain inconclusive. That means 68 of the 82 (83%) at some point fell from power as a result of their sins—whether via resignation (38), removal (5), retirement (14), or repudiation by the voters (11). This is the population we're really interested in, as it includes Weiner and Sanford.
Out of those 68, 66 never held elected office again. That's an abysmal 97% attrition rate. The two success stories include only one who successfully returned to his previous position: Alabama Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore, who was removed in 2003 following a politically popular decision to defy a court order to remove the Ten Commandments from public property. (The second, former Michigan congresswoman Barbara-Rose Collins, managed to win a couple local elections to the Detroit City Council.)
This doesn't even include people who weren't holding office at the time of their scandal, such as former vice-presidential candidate John Edwards, who it's safe to say would've been run out of town on a rail if he were still a senator. The 66, however, do include Newt Gingrich, who has arguably made a comeback by doing as well as he did in the 2012 GOP primaries, as well as Sanford and Weiner themselves, whose fates are yet to be determined. It also includes 58 disgraced ex-pols who never even attempted comebacks, although this fact in and of itself is instructive, in my opinion. Still, peel away these quibbles, and politicians who left office in disgrace still have a poor .286 batting average (2 out of 7) when they try to come back from obscurity and regain public office.
My findings conspicuously clash with a prominent recent study that found that most scandal-plagued politicians actually pull through just fine. Political scientist Scott Basinger compiled a database of 237 naughty congressmen and found that, while they have a lower political survival rate than their unblemished colleagues, they still returned to Congress more often than not. Specifically, 73% of embattled congressmen stuck it out and contested another general election (versus 91% in the control group); 81% of those went on to win, making for a total survival rate of 60%.
Without Basinger's full data set, I can't say for certain why his findings are so divergent from mine. I'd probably point to three key differences in our methodology. First, I looked at all federal and statewide elected officials, while Basinger limited himself to US congressmen. Second, and perhaps more importantly, Basinger went all the way back to 1973, while I stopped at 1993. I tend to believe that more recent data are more reliable—even cases from 20 years ago are of limited value in the age of social media, if you ask me—but Basinger's doubly large sample size could certainly account for our disagreement.
Third, while I don't know how Basinger conducted his research, mine consisted mainly of a heck of a lot of Googling. I'm almost certain that I missed out on a few scandals, especially going back to the 1990s when the archives of the World Wide Web grow thin. Still, because of the nature of internet research, I'm fairly confident that I documented all of the most high-profile scandals of the past 20 years. Basinger, in contrast, doubtlessly included even the most obscure misconduct in his database. Again, while more data points are usually good, in this case it might be more instructive to look solely at the high-profile cases. They are the ones most closely relatable to Sanford and Weiner, and they predictably prove more damaging to politicians' public personas. It's probably not helpful to skew our predictions for two notorious adulterers with politicians who coasted to reelection after abusing the franking privilege, for instance.
Indeed, I completely trust Basinger's methodology and his findings, and I'm perfectly willing to believe that 60% of overall offenders tough it out and go on to live completely normal and healthy political lives. Indeed, a decent slice of my dataset did that very thing. I'm even willing to admit that my dataset is flawed in that it probably undercounts the number of politicians who defied calls to resign and weathered the storm (again, it's easier to find internet archives of big news events like "SENATOR X RESIGNS"). My research may very well be inconclusive about this cadre.
But it doesn't matter, because we're talking about politicians who didn't survive—who, like Weiner and Sanford, fell to the deepest depths of shame and ignominy—and then climbed back to a position of prominence, power, and popularity. About them, there can be little doubt that full-blown comebacks from rock bottom do not happen. Basinger does not address this specific type of case in his study, leaving my data—66 out of 68, remember—as our only guide.
The reason that the media's examples of political comebacks—meant to convince us that Sanford and Weiner really can do it—actually bear no resemblance or relationship to Sanford's and Weiner's utter implosions is that there almost literally are no political phoenix stories. All of the most famous "comeback" stories—Barney Frank, Ted Kennedy, Wilbur Mills, David Vitter—are of politicians who never resigned in the first place. They recognized that their best strategy was to deny, defer, or deflect guilt as quickly as possible and move on. By the time they faced the voters again, their transgressions were either forgotten or overshadowed.
But for those who admit fault—or, perhaps more accurately, admit that they ought to be punished for it by resigning or otherwise leaving office—the path to public forgiveness is much less clear. If you're a scandalized politician, at least you still have your office and a platform from which to build yourself back up (including the significant electoral advantage of incumbency). Step down, and you're nothing but a broken man. Leaving office in disgrace has been a black mark from which there has almost never been any coming back. The media and 24-hour news networks may love comeback stories, but there's little evidence the public does.
We've taken our time to come back around to the bottom line for Weiner and Sanford, so here it is: they're probably finished, even if they don't know it yet. For Weiner, going from disrepute to the extremely powerful position of New York City mayor in the space of two years is just too big of a jump. Even the one ex-representative who returned to local government did so to city council, and she endured an ethics investigation, not Weiner's sensationalist sex scandal and its attendant national humiliation. A comeback by Weiner would be unprecedented in modern American politics.
Sanford, while still an unlikely candidate, may have slightly better odds. For one thing, he has already won one election—the GOP primary—which is half the hurdle. For another, he holds a key advantage over Weiner: he never resigned. Despite the equal amount of ridicule and embarrassment he faced with his "Appalachian Trail" saga, Sanford actually served out the remaining two years of his term as governor and was effective at fading out of the spotlight rather than going out with a bang. However, polls indicate Sanford is still badly underperforming a generic Republican, and, after this week's revelations of further family troubles resulted in his abandonment by the NRCC, the former governor is now looking decidedly like an underdog. All in all, I would be surprised to see him buck history here.