Scandals and Congressional Elections in the Post-Watergate Era

By Basinger, Scott J. | Political Research Quarterly, June 2013 | Go to article overview

Scandals and Congressional Elections in the Post-Watergate Era


Basinger, Scott J., Political Research Quarterly


Abstract

Since Watergate, more than two hundred fifty members of the House of Representatives have been involved in various scandals. The author finds that roughly 40 percent of incumbents did not "survive" their scandal. Incumbents who stood for reelection lost 5 percent of the general election vote share, on average, but the electoral repercussions vary across types of scandals and could be magnified in the presence of a quality challenger. A scandal-tainted incumbent defending his or her seat does not necessarily fare better than an untainted open-seat candidate, a finding that provides a justification for stronger ethics rules.

Keywords

scandals, campaigns, congressional elections, ethics

When an elected official's character is called into question, what are the electoral consequences? One possibility is that alleged misconduct undermines voters' assessments of the accused, making the incumbent more vulnerable to defeat. Representative government has been described as a principal-agent relationship, in which the principals (vot- ers) face uncertainty in evaluating their agent (the elected official). An elected official possesses hidden information about his or her interests and qualities and can take hidden actions that reward himself or herself, financially or other- wise, rather than pursue constituents' interests. Within this framework, involvement in a scandal might provide a cheap and clear signal that an incumbent lacks quality (Mondak 1995). Alternatively, involvement in a scandal might reveal a violation of the trust between elected offi- cials and their constituents, who "are asked to accept a lot on faith despite intrinsic reasons for skepticism" (Jacobson and Dimock 1994, 603; see also Fenno 1978). A competing possibility is that voters separate elected representatives' private behavior from their public images. A legendary congressman, Charlie Wilson, famously offered his opin- ion while embroiled in a financial scandal: "I think the people of East Texas knew they weren't electing a CPA [certified public accountant]" (Clarence 1992). A third possibility is that constituents may be largely ignorant of and unresponsive to accusations of misconduct, but politi- cal elites are acutely sensitive to incumbents' potential vul- nerabilities. Prospective candidates might be more apt to challenge a scandal-tainted incumbent and more able to raise campaign funds, and therefore might pilfer votes from scandal-tainted incumbents even if voters do not autonomously connect the alleged misbehavior with their votes.

Laboratory studies by political scientists indicate that experimental participants do respond negatively to scan- dal, whether measured by their candidate evaluations or by their vote intentions.1 These researchers have examined different types of scandals and usually find that voters respond more negatively to financial scandals and/or to abuses of power than to extramarital affairs-perhaps indi- cating that voters do distinguish some forms of private misbehavior. However, these findings have not been bol- stered by or validated with voter surveys and election results. Furthermore, the hypothetical effects of scandals on challenger quantity, quality, and campaign spending have been examined only in narrow contexts, like the House Bank scandal.

The aim of this article is to fill the gap in the scholar- ship with a large-scale study of House elections using a new, comprehensive database of congressional scandals and elections covering four decades, from 1972 to 2012. This time period has provided no shortage of scandals, and exposés have been penned about "Koreagate," "Abscam," Jack Abramoff, and congressmen Wayne Hays, Tony Coelho, Jim Wright, Gary Condit, Tom DeLay, and Randy Cunningham.2 These episodes repre- sent a fraction of scandals, and these case studies provide little insight into voters' reactions to scandals since most of the accused members chose not to seek reelection. …

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