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Study: Political scandals barely impact politicians

U.S. Rep. James Comer, a Republican from Kentucky who is chairman of the House Oversight Committee, speaks June 20, 2023, to reporters at the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., about an alleged bribery scandal related to U.S. President Joe Biden. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – A new study finds that major political controversies barely impact politicians anymore.

To assess the impact of scandals on a politicians’ ability to survive in office, Brandon Rottinghaus, a professor of political science at the University of Houston College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, examined presidential, gubernatorial and congressional scandals from 1972 to 2021.

His article “Do Scandals Matter?” was published in the journal Political Research Quarterly.

“Scandals don’t hit like they used to,” Rottinghaus said. “Politicians involved are able to survive them because you have media much more divided on political terms. You have people who are more partisan and only look at partisan outcomes, and, in an odd way, scandals help increase fundraising for some members who are involved in those scandals.”

Rottinghaus found negative consequences from scandals vary across time and institutions.

Scandals in the Watergate era led to more resignations in Congress, but then in the 1990s there were fewer resignations of White House officials.

During former President Donald Trump’s administration, White House officials did not survive in office at rates greater than past eras.

However, politicians generally survived scandal more in this current polarized era, which hints at the changing role of political scandals.

Partisanship, he wrote, reduces the negative impact of scandal on some incumbent politicians as they can largely rely on their base, which is not as critical of the politicians getting caught in scandals.

“This is because they want to see their side win and the other side lose,” he said.

With media, Rottinghaus said, because it is more polarized than in past political eras, people can consume the media that fits their political preferences. “That means people are getting only one side of the story. If a politician gets caught in a scandal, that politician can claim the other side is out to get them politically and your base will still like you, despite the scandal.”

Rottinghaus’s methodology included using three new data sets of scandals involving presidents, members of Congress, and governors at the state level over 50 years. He charted the duration of each political, personal and financial scandal faced by an elected official. Then, he investigated what factors hasten the “end” of a scandal, which is defined as when the scandal ends negatively for the elected official. The results clarified how officials survive scandals and whether the political climate exacerbates the scandal.