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Why This Scandal Won’t Hurt Hillary

U.Va. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato is contributing a regular column to Politico Magazine. This week, he explores how scandals haven’t often been top-tier issues in presidential general elections, something to keep in mind in light of the recent focus on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. A version of this article originally appeared in Politico Magazine on March 22, 2015.

The Editors

Admit it: You love a juicy scandal. We claim to be high-minded and policy-oriented, but our noses are buried in the accounts of the latest political calamity — and we read those stories before anything else.

The Hillary Clinton e-mail controversy is just the latest entrée in a decades-long, calorie-rich menu provided by the former first lady and her husband. But will it make a difference in 2016?

Scandal allegations are almost always an enormously time-consuming distraction and they make it virtually impossible to communicate a positive message during the feeding frenzy. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the damage will be long-lasting. In this respect, presidential campaigns can be very different than those for lower levels.

At those lower levels of politics — House and Senate races, for example — there is considerable evidence that a scandal can wreak havoc and even defeat normally favored incumbents. A 2013 study in Social Science Quarterly, by Rodrigo Praino and colleagues, looks at races involving incumbents who were investigated by the U.S. House Ethics Committee. The consequences were quite severe in the 88 cases that occurred between 1972 and 2006:

“On average, incumbents’ election margins drop almost 12 percentage points below their pre-investigation levels once an investigation is formally opened…Furthermore, the scandal-plagued incumbents who survive [to be reelected] do not recover immediately, regaining only about 5 percentage points of their lost margins in the subsequent election. It is not until the second post-scandal reelection bid that the average scandal-plagued incumbent returns to his or her pre-scandal margins.”

A second recent investigation of post-Watergate House races by Scott Basinger in Political Research Quarterly covered scandalized incumbents of all types (whether investigated by the Ethics Committee or not). His conclusions were also grim for many members of Congress: More than 40% of the members in question failed to “survive” a scandal, either retiring or losing an election (primary or general), and the incumbents who did make it to November again saw, on average, a 5% decrease in their share of the general election vote. A good example of a scandal-tarred incumbent who ran for re-election but lost is former California Rep. Gary Condit (D); after the disappearance of former intern Chandra Levy, Condit failed to prevail in a 2002 primary. More recently, Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R) performed slightly worse in his 2012 re-election after news broke of the pro-life doctor having affairs with multiple patients and urging one of them to get an abortion. The full effect of the scandal came to bear in the 2014 primary, although the damaged DesJarlais won renomination by 38 votes and remains in Congress.

Nevertheless, there is good reason to think that scandal has a much less pronounced effect at the presidential level. For one thing, most elections for the White House revolve around macro-issues such as the economy and war, and voters instinctively realize that personal peccadilloes fade in importance. For another, most top-tier contenders are reasonably well known and have been vetted to some degree by the press and opponents in prior elections. When voters already have a clearly formed view of a candidate and his or her strengths and weaknesses, it naturally becomes more difficult to alter impressions.

For no one is this more true than Hillary Clinton, who has been in the national spotlight, center stage, for 23 years. HuffPost Pollster data show over 90% of the public has already formed an opinion of Clinton, the most of any potential 2016 candidate. Other than the very youngest voters, is there really anyone left who doesn’t have a mostly fixed view of her?

You can argue that, to a lesser degree, the same is true for Jeb Bush. Americans outside of Florida may not know Jeb well, but they are very familiar with the Bush family. While Jeb doesn’t like it and is already struggling against it, voters attribute many of his family’s traits to him.

Jeb is insisting he’s his own man, yet it will be nearly impossible to insulate him from the deep recessions and Middle East wars of his father and brother. With the good that derives directly from being a Bush (instant name recognition, establishment support, tons of campaign cash) comes the unavoidable bad of the Iraq War, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and economic near-collapse.

Think of it this way: Both Clinton and Bush enter the campaign cycle with a million pixel image in the voters’ minds. If you add a couple thousand new pixels to the picture, the overall image doesn’t change much. A garden-variety scandal — and maybe an entire campaign full of them — won’t transform the projection on the screen.

History offers a bit of proof. Even when scandals were prominent in the headlines or recent memory, they have only rarely had a critical impact on the selection of a president. If you examine the 29 presidential elections since 1900 to look for the dominant deciding factor(s), you’ll find that scandal has seldom played any conclusive role. The traditional, overriding voter concerns about the economy and war adequately explain the bulk of election outcomes.

In just seven of 29 White House contests has scandal been significant enough to constitute part of the analysis — and in several cases the candidate most touched by scandal won anyway.

In 1924, when the deep corruption of President Harding’s term was fully coming to light after his death in August 1923, Harding’s successor Calvin Coolidge seemingly paid no price in his landslide election to a full term. Granted, Coolidge was not involved in Teapot Dome or any of the Harding era’s hanky-panky, yet it might have been rational for voters to punish the Republican nominee on account of party misconduct. (It certainly helped Coolidge that Democrats were also terribly divided — after all, it took them 103 ballots to decide on a compromise nominee at their convention.)

The next time a form of scandal was repeatedly highlighted on the campaign trail took place seven presidential elections later, when Dwight Eisenhower captured the White House. One of the 1952 GOP slogans was “Communism, Korea, and Corruption,” references to alleged deficiencies in the administration of President Harry Truman. This was a classic foreign policy election, primarily about the unpopular Korean War, which Ike pledged to end by going to Korea personally. The spread of communism played a secondary role, with the debate about “who lost China?” and the Soviet Union’s acquisition of the atomic bomb part of the GOP’s indictment of the Democrats.

But corruption was a lesser matter; even the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket didn’t dwell upon it in the fall, possibly because of vice presidential nominee Richard Nixon’s so-called “secret fund” for expenses, which begat his famous televised “Checkers speech” in September. While there were unquestionably examples of corruption and waste in a Democratic regime 20 years old, greed never touched Truman himself — so honest he left the presidency almost a pauper. (The Trumans are a true-to-life example of a first couple who left the White House “dead broke.”)

By contrast, in 1976 voters appeared to exact a price for the Watergate mega-scandal from President Gerald Ford. While Ford was as uninvolved in Watergate as Coolidge had been in Teapot Dome, Ford was held accountable for the pardon he issued to Nixon a month after taking his predecessor’s place in 1974. Still, the shaky economy was likely a more potent reason for Ford’s two-point loss to Jimmy Carter.

Vice President George H.W. Bush was luckier in 1988. At one point, President Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal brought Reagan’s job approval crashing down and threatened to turn the ’88 election decisively toward the Democrats. However, the scandal had broken in November 1986, plenty of time for it to have run its course before Bush faced the voters two years later. A Democratic campaign based in part on Iran-Contra fell flat, and Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in a rout.

Bill Clinton can also testify to scandal’s inability to determine election outcomes. In 1992, he survived revelations about his long affair with Gennifer Flowers as well as charges of Vietnam War draft evasion to win handily. In 1996, Clinton triumphed again despite the churning of Whitewater as well as charges of extensive womanizing from Arkansas state troopers who had guarded him during his dozen years as the Razorback State’s governor. Then in the second term came Monica Lewinsky and impeachment — which redounded to Clinton’s advantage and, along with the long economic boom, helped Vice President Al Gore to secure a popular-vote advantage of 539,000 votes in 2000. Gore would probably have won the Electoral College, too, had he better utilized Clinton on the campaign trail in several swing states Gore ultimately lost (including Florida, of course).

Oddly, it was the other party’s candidate who suffered more from a scandal in 2000. The week before the election, it was revealed (via some Democratic operatives) that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in 1976, an embarrassment he had concealed even from some members of his own family. Having campaigned on a pledge to “restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office,” Bush was caught in hypocrisy just when undecided voters were making their decisions. Strategists in Bush’s camp insist to this day that the incident cost Bush the popular vote by discouraging a sizable group of evangelicals from showing up at the polls. While Bush received about four out of five of the ballots of white evangelicals, turnout was lower than the campaign expected in some conservative Christian strongholds.

So what does this tell us about Hillary’s emails and the scrapes her Republican opponents are going to have while traveling 2016’s scandal road? First, there is perhaps less to worry about than the distraught handwringing by pundits and activists suggests. And second, if a candidate is going to detour to the scandal trail, it’s far better to take the trip early in the election cycle. Commentators and partisans from the other camp will always remember and never forgive, but many voters are inclined to move on from “old news.”

That said, when the Clintons are involved, “new news” on the scandal front is always a possibility.