Voters Still Punish Scandalous Politicians, but Donors Protect Them

In recent years, expanded media coverage of national politics and the 24-hour news cycle have ensured that the public never miss a political scandal. Hamel and Miller study how the mass voting public react to such scandals and highlight factors that drive donor behavior in their aftermath.

June 28, 2018

Scandal is an omnipresent force in American politics. Given the constant parade of accusations, resignations, and forlorn politicians holding press conferences, academics and media alike have devoted a great deal of attention to understanding the effects of political scandals. Yet, much remains unknown, especially when it comes to understanding how scandals affect politicians’ ability to raise money in an effort to win re-election.

In new work (ungated here), we use data on scandals in the U.S. House between 1980 and 2010 to examine how the revelation of a scandal affected the subsequent behavior of both the mass voting public and campaign contributors. We distinguish between scandals that garnered coverage in a national newspaper (The New York Times) and those that did not. We expected voters to punish politicians, but the expectation for donors was less clear. For instance, donors are more ideologically extreme than voters, and are quite sophisticated; as such, they may actually try to help politicians who find themselves involved in a scandal in an effort to protect their investment. And, it’s also not clear whether voters are equally willing to punish politicians from their preferred party today—in a period of nationalized politics—as they were before the rise of cable news and social media, which may have made voters more likely to focus on national outcomes than local events.

Our study investigates how both voters and donors respond to scandal, and how their response is affected by media attention. First, we demonstrate that Members of Congress involved in a scandal received fewer votes and were less likely to win reelection than those not embroiled in a scandal. While this may be unsurprising (since we expected that politicians would pay a price for their bad behavior), some of our other results are less intuitive. For instance, Members involved in a scandal raised more money in the immediate aftermath of its revelation than similar non-scandal tainted legislators. And, while these first two findings point to differing motivations of voters and donors, they are constrained to scandals that received national media attention, with particularly strong effects in nationally visible financial and sex scandals. Finally, we find that all of these effects are significantly different in the post-1994 period than they were before; in the more recent period voters appear to be less willing to punish politicians, and donors offer more support to scandal-tainted members of Congress.

Our findings also suggest that voters do not punish, and donors do not make effort to rescue, scandalous Members of Congress unless the scandal is serious enough to garner media attention in the national press. Moreover, this is a fairly new development that has coincided with the rise of national political media and the 24-hour news cycle. In the less-localized political environment since 1994, punishing scandal-tainted politicians may seem less straightforward, since voters might think that doing so might hurt the party’s chances of holding a congressional majority. As a result, voters appear to be more likely to put their partisan concerns above any feelings they have about a politician’s conduct. At the same time, donors are even more likely today to step in with financial support for a flailing politician.

These results should shape our thinking about how scandals affect politics, but they also shed light on donors’ thinking specifically. Voters punish politicians less today than they did in the 1980s, but they do still display a willingness in the aggregate to sanction scandalous politicians. However, far from acting to punish a politician for bad behavior, donors appear to see a nationally visible scandal as a signal that their ally needs help. This is consistent with an ideological, investor mentality, and underscores that many donors—who are partisans with clear policy goals—contribute strategically with future returns in mind. Losing a member from their preferred “team” could conceivably alter the partisan dynamics of Congress, making that investment riskier. In short, donors overlook the scandalous behavior entirely in the interest of protecting policy outcomes.

Brian Hamel is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science at UCLA. Michael Miller is an Assistant Professor of Political Science, Barnard College, Columbia University. They are co-authors of the paper How Voters Punish and Donors Protect Legislators Embroiled in Scandal.  

Image: Flickr / Rachel Maddow. Some rights reserved.


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