Many opponents of the current Israeli government coalition wonder why its supporters are not dismayed by the many alleged scandals that have plagued it since the last election in November 2022.
Now a new study from Texas that examined US presidential, gubernatorial, and Congressional scandals from 1972 to 2021 seems to illuminate the issue and why many Israelis are not scandalized by scandal.
Modern American politics has been plagued by scandals from Watergate to Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, to Donald Trump’s Access Hollywood tapes and impeachments. More recently, US President Joe Biden’s son Hunter faces tax and gun possession charges, casting a shadow over his father’s re-election bid.
Political science research is conflicted about the impact of political scandals on survival in office. Scholars have found strong negative impacts to some scandals but others have found minimal or no effects.
A politician's ability to survive in office
To assess the impact of scandals on a politician’s ability to survive in office, University of Houston political science Prof. Brandon Rottinghaus. His article Do Scandals Matter? was published in the journal Political Research Quarterly.
“Scandals don’t hit like they used to,” said Rottinghaus. “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.” In his study, Rottinghaus’ definition of scandal involves allegations of illegal, unethical or immoral wrongdoing.
He 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 ‘90s, there were fewer resignations of White House officials. During the Trump administration, White House officials did not survive in office at rates greater than past eras. However, politicians generally survived scandals 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.
The media are more polarized than ever
Rottinghaus said that because the media are more polarized than in past political eras, people can consume the news 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.”
And in some ways, small scandals can even be beneficial for fundraising. For example, Rottinghaus said, with US representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert, they can make outlandish statements, send out fundraising appeals and receive many small-dollar donors to contribute to their campaigns.
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 (or not) and whether the political climate exacerbates the scandal.
Before this study, Rottinghaus’ data was limited to the middle of former president Barack Obama’s term. He now has updated data through Donald Trump’s presidency and tested whether Trump changed the way scandals affected the American public – something he calls the “Trump Effect.”
“The answer is a tentative ‘yes’ to that,” Rottinghaus said. “Trump didn’t change the game, but he altered in some ways how scandals affect politicians generally. Although he himself was able to survive these allegations, a lot of his cabinet members didn’t, yet they did hold on a little longer than they would have in the pre-polarized era.”
In the study, that era begins in the mid-1990s during the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. “That's the point where you see scandals matter a lot more.” Overall, Rottinghaus said his research finds scandals do not have as much of an impact as they once did, but their impact also depends on whether the politician is a president, governor or member of Congress.