Donald Trump is facing numerous legal challenges for misconduct, but it does not appear to be hurting him with Republican voters. Members of Congress like George Santos are also brushing off mounting scandals, using them to raise money. Have candidates grown immune from scandal, even one after another? Brian Hamel finds that scandals traditionally hurt incumbents with voters but helped them with donors. But the rise of nationalized polarized campaigns has meant they no longer hurt at the ballot box. Mandi Bates Bailey finds that scandals can hurt candidates with voters, but multiple scandals don’t hurt them any more than one scandal. Voters can only process so much that they hear about a candidate and only some voters will prioritize that information over partisanship.
Guests: Brian Hamel, Louisiana State University; Mandi Bates Bailey, Valdosta State University
Studies: “How Voters Punish and Donors Protect Legislators Embroiled in Scandal”; “Scandal-Ridden Campaigns”
Matt Grossmann: Why Scandals Don’t Add Up to Damaged Candidates, this week on The Science of Politics. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann.
Donald Trump is facing numerous legal challenges for misconduct, but it does not appear to be hurting him, at least with the Republican voters. Members of Congress, like George Santos, are also brushing off mounting scandals, even using them to raise money. How anomalous are these cases? Have candidates grown immune from scandal, even at one after another? This week, I talk to Brian Hamel, Louisiana State University, about his article with Michael Miller, How Voters Punish and Donors Protect Legislators Embroiled in Scandal. He finds that scandals traditionally hurt incumbents with voters, but helped with donors. But with the rise of nationalized, polarized campaigns, they no longer hurt with voters. Politicians have honed a strategy of attacking the accusers and mobilizing their base to avoid punishment.
I also talked to Mandi Bates Bailey of Valdosta State University about her article with Steven Nawara, Scandal-Ridden Campaigns. She finds that scandals can hurt candidates with voters, but multiple scandals don’t hurt them any more than one scandal. Voters can only process so much about a candidate, and only some voters will prioritize that information over partisanship. The evidence suggests that voters are not quite ignoring scandals, but we shouldn’t expect them to bring down canddiates who seek to stay and fight.
So your research on US House scandals finds that scandals do hurt legislators among voters. What did you use to assess that, and what were the size of those effects?
Brian Hamel: Great, yeah. Thanks for having me. I did some research with Michael Miller at Barnard College, and we are interested in the effects of scandal among members of Congress on their vote share. So, what we did is we started with a dataset of US House scandals between 1980 and 2010. This is an existing dataset. It includes a range of types of scandals from financial scandals, so things like bribery, tax evasion, political scandals which would something like professional misconduct, misuse of funds, campaign funds, sex scandals, so sexual harassment, extramarital affairs. Then there’s this other category that captures everything else.
I think the important thing to note here is that these are not just cases that Congress has investigated as part of the Ethics Committee, so those will be things that only cover sort of regulate congressional behavior, but this is covering a wide range of things. And so, over this 30 year period we’ve got about 100 scandals, and most of them are financial scandals. What we did is… One thing we wanted to do is figure out what’s the media coverage around these things, so we did a search of newspaper archives to find out when did the scandal break. In other words, when was the first time the public could have possibly learned about this scandal.
And so, we looked through any newspaper, through the archives, and found what’s the first time this was mentioned. Then we looked after that date and we tried to see how often was it covered. We tried to see how often was it covered in The New York Times, in the 30 days after the break date of the scandal. We’ve got all this information about these scandals, and we wanted to know how did this affect your vote share in the next election. What we did is we compared members of Congress who were involved in those scandals to similar members who were not involved in a scandal.
In other words, take members who have same party affiliation, same level of previous support in the last election, same levels of seniority, similar ideology. But the difference is, one of them was involved in a scandal and one of them was not. We compare those two types of members, and what we found is that averaging across all of the 30 years of data you lose about four percentage points in your vote share if you’re involved in a scandal. However, those effects are much bigger if you look at members of Congress who are involved in a scandal, and for which there was media coverage around that scandal.
If your scandal was covered by The New York Times, it’s an eight percentage point drop in vote share. But for those scandals that received no media coverage, had no visibility, there’s really no effect that we can observe of that scandal. And so what it suggests is that scandals, you’re going to lose votes. People are going to abandon you electorally, but it’s really going to depend on the degree to which there’s media coverage.
Matt Grossmann: You also found though that there was a partially compensating effect for donations, that these scandal-plagued legislators might generate more donations. How did you do that and what was the size of those effects?
Brian Hamel: This was really interesting. We used that break date that I was telling you about where we figured out we know when the scandal broke, and the nice thing is that campaign contribution records, every contribution that is made to a candidate that is above a certain amount is public, and each of those contributions are dated. And so, we could actually see whether people were donating to the politician after the scandal broke or not. We did exactly that. We looked to see whether you raised more money after the scandal breaks than you were raising before the scandal broke.
And yeah, exactly, we found that you actually raise more money after the scandal breaks. We call this that sort of donors are coming to your rescue. It’s actually a pretty substantial effect. When you are involved in a scandal, you raise about 35% more than you did before the scandal broke. And those effects are even larger when that scandal is covered by the media. Those effects go up to about 60%. I think how do we explain this kind of effect, I think what we know is that most campaign contributions are made by individual donors. These are people who tend to be donating for expressive purposes. They’re donating to promote a particular policy, party, or ideological cause. They also tend to be pretty ideologically extreme and pretty strong Partisans.
So we think what’s happening here is that a scandal breaks, and Partisans are coming to the rescue and seeking to protect members of their own party. They may not believe the allegations, but even if they do think they might be true, they recognize that they would rather have still someone from their own party in office than perhaps someone from the other party getting elected because of this scandal. The other important thing to note is that most of these individual donors are out of district, and many are out of state. They really are donating money to defend their political party moreso than the actual member of Congress whose involved in this.
They are not being represented by them. They don’t particularly care necessarily about that individual member. But they do care about their party. We think that’s what’s driving a lot of these effects.
Matt Grossmann: You mentioned that you combine a lot of different types of behavior under this label of scandal. I think you find some differences across the scandals in how much coverage they get and how much impact they can get. What were the big differences?
Brian Hamel: We did find some differences by the type of scandal, and this is something that previous work has found. Previous work has shown that for example, financial scandals tend to be viewed more negatively than sex scandals do. We actually found the opposite of that. We find effects for financial and sex scandals, but we actually slightly larger effects for sex scandals. We don’t really have an explanation for this, so we think it’s an important area for future research.
I will say that some of the other areas where we don’t see a lot of effects for political scandals and this “other” category, we have relatively small sample size there. Things in the other category are things like being arrested for driving under the influence, receiving a speeding ticket. I think these types of scandals, and you could probably include political scandals in there too, they may indicate bad judgment but voters may not see these as necessarily being relevant for the ability of a member of Congress to do their job, except to the extent that it’s sort of a repeated behavior.
That could be one reason why you don’t see effects there, but again I think another big part is this media coverage. The financial scandals and the sex scandals are likely to garner much more media coverage them say receiving a speeding ticket, or even misuse of campaign funds. We think about media coverage as a continuum, as a spectrum, that the financial and sex scandals are much more likely probably to receive more coverage.
Matt Grossmann: One of the big findings in prior literature is that partisanship can dampen these effects because Partisans might not want to go against their own party. You are unable to look at it at the individual voter level, but you do see some changes over time that correspond to increased nationalization and polarization. Talk about those, and do you see that as evidence that partisanship is about to block these effects.
Brian Hamel: I think this is probably the most interesting part of the paper, and I should say that it’s not something that when we originally wrote this paper was actually part of the paper. It actually came out of the peer review process. What we find is that these effects on both these voter effects and these donor effects have changed quite dramatically, even over the 30-year period that we look at.
First, we find that after 1994 voters are actually no longer punishing members involved in scandal at the polls. After 1994 to 2010, there’s no difference in your vote share, no decrease in your vote share when you are involved in a scandal. The electoral cost to scandal is really at an all-time low. At the same time, all of those positive effects that we find for fundraising are occurring after 1994. Before 1994, you’re not raising more money when you’re involved in a scandal, and now you are.
I think this says a lot about contemporary politics. I think it’s consistent with a lot of literature on partisanship and polarization. I think scandal now may only be a good thing. I’m not saying that you’re going to win more votes if you’re involved in a scandal, but rather it’s that voters are really totally unaffected by it. At the same time, you’re going to now raise a ton of money. You’re going to raise more money than you never did before.
It suggests I think that partisanship is so strong today that voters care much less about these valence characteristics. And similarly, donors when they’re donating, they’re perhaps even more expressive than they ever have been. I will say our data ended in 2010 and so you might wonder what’s happened in the last 13 years. We can’t be sure of that just based on this study, but my guess is that nothing really has changed. If anything, you might be even able to raise even more money today after a scandal than you could between 1994 and 2010. In terms of the voter effects, I would guess there still really is no negative effect of scandal on your vote share.
Matt Grossmann: So this is an area of research that kind of ebbs and flows with major scandals, and we kind of go back to it now and then. How would you summarize what we know and what is still up for debate about the effects of scandals?
Brian Hamel: I think the most important thing that we know, and this is true in the United States, this is also true outside of the United States, is that most politicians that are involved in scandal will win re-election if they decide to seek re-election. The effects that we showed, which was an eight percentage point drop, and again that’s confined to that 1980-1994 period for scandals that have media coverage, those effects are not really big enough to substantially change the likelihood that you’re going to win, when most incumbents are running in very safe seats.
Being involved in a scandal is often a difference of winning by a lot versus winning by a little less. I think this is probably even more true today, again as those voter effects appear to be declining even further. The reality is that most voters have a lot of things that they care about when they’re voting, and scandal is maybe not one of the most important things. The second thing is that these scandal effects are context-dependent. That’s going to be true about the type of scandal, whether it’s financial or sex scandal. Regardless of what type of scandal it is, all of them need to be covered by the media.
So voters, and donors for that matter, are not responding to all types of scandal. They’re only responding to those things that they know about. And so, the media is a crucial linkage institution here, as it usually is, in informing voters and donors about scandals. In terms of what we don’t know a lot about, and I think this is the literature again that as you said it sort of ebbs and flows as there’s scandals occurring, I think there’s a couple of things.
One is, all of the literature is very voter centric. We see these scandals, observe, and then we look at how voters respond to them. There’s very little work as far as I know about research looking at how politicians respond to allegations of scandal. What happens when the politician admits to what they did and tries to curtail the effects of it versus when politicians come out and say, “This is a political tact. I’m innocent. I didn’t do anything wrong.” We don’t know a lot about that shaped the response of politicians who are involved in scandals, how that shapes how voters react.
The second thing that I think we need to do more of, and this is again coming as a step against the very voter centric literature, is we don’t know a lot about what elites do. What about the party network of activists? What about establishment party donors? What about other politicians? I’ve done some work in Italy on scandal and corruption, which shows that party elites, party leaders, party bosses, they’re much more willing to punish politicians who are involved in scandal than our voters. Part of the reason is that they think that potentially having one member of your party involved in scandal could hurt the rest of the party.
Voters, of course, don’t really make those calculations when they’re necessarily in the ballot box. We can think more about how do other party elites respond to their fellow members of Congress when they’re involved in scandal. One way you could do that is to say, for example, a lot of politicians have leadership pacts where they’re able to donate money to their fellow members of Congress. You could imagine doing a similar study to what Michael and I did, where looking at how does the scandal affect your ability to raise money and garner support from politicians in your own party?
Generally, I think we’ve done a nice job in the literature of figuring out the voter effects. And there’s certainly more to do there, but I think the next step is thinking about elite responsiveness to scandal.
Matt Grossmann: One thing that stimulated my move back to this literature is that Donald Trump was recently indicted for false business accounting, which was both a sex and financial scandal. On the other hand, it’s obviously one in a long list of the negative publicity that Trump has gotten. There was some early indication, or at least claims, that this might help with his fundraising, may or may not be having strong effects on voters. Give us a sense of how much do you think your research applies to this situation, and if you would expect similar dynamics.
Brian Hamel: It’s a great question. I think we will absolutely see positive fundraising effects, as you pointed out, like his campaign has alluded to the fact that they’ve raised quite a bit of money, I think that $7 million since the indictment came down. Of course, that’s somewhat cheap talk as they can say that they’ve raised whatever amount of money they want to. I definitely believe that that is probably something that happens, and I think it’s going to continue to happen the more that he talks about it, the more that he frames this indictment as an attack by Democratic party elites, which is certainly exactly what he’s going to do.
I also think it’s unlikely we’ll see any voter effects. For Donald Trump, the challenge is that he’s very well-defined. So, people who are against him are still against him. People who are for him are not going to jump off the bandwagon at this point. And so, people are just so committed to their preferred party to let a scandal get in the way. It’s consistent a bit with our post-1994 effects that we find, but I think in the case of Trump it’s less likely even moreso that you’re going to see these voter effects because of the fact that he’s so well-defined. At the very least for a member of Congress, many voters are not super aware of who their member of Congress is, let alone what they’re doing.
And so, a scandal is at least providing some new information that could potentially impact your evaluations. In the case of Donald Trump, there’s not a whole lot that we can learn, that anyone can learn, whether you’re for or against him that’s going to change your mind. I think what you’re going to see, is you’re going to see his base support him more and more. They’re going to do that partially through fundraising. But I don’t ultimately think that it’s going to have a major effect on people voting for him or not in the next election.
Matt Grossmann: Another reason and example that got a lot of attention was Congressman George Santos, who got elected in New York and then was later found to have made up most or a lot of different aspects of his biography. Are there any similar examples we can learn from the past about that type of scandal? Is this an example, the media coverage wasn’t there and therefore it didn’t have any effect? Or is this just not the kind of thing that tends to break through?
Brian Hamel: I think George Santos is a pretty unique case. I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything quite like this. I think it is interesting… You think about people say, “How did he get elected?” I do think part of the story here is media in the sense that a none of this stuff was unearthed and covered while he was actually running. You might say, “If this came out while he was running, this would have impacted his ability to win.” I still don’t think we’ve seen anything quite like it. I think Mitt Romney had said that… George Santos had said that he was just slight embellishments and Mitt Romney said, “Well, an embellishment is saying you got an A in a course when you got an A-. What this is more is, is like you said you graduated from a college you never attended.”
Politicians certainly embellish all the time, but we probably haven’t seen this level of downright lying about just a range of things. In some sense, his behavior since all of this has come out, which has basically been to say “I’m not resigning. I’m staying in office. I’ve made some mistakes, but it’s not a big deal,” it almost sounds like his behavior is suggesting that he has read my paper because he might be thinking ultimately voters don’t really care about this stuff, that he can ride this out. And that, by the time it comes for Election Day in 2024, he can still get re-elected. Everyone will have forgotten about it and no one really cares to begin with.
Santos’s challenge though is that he actually represents a very competitive district politically. He actually only won with about 54% of the vote in 2022. Even small drops in support may be enough to do him in at the end of the day. He is banking on the idea that voters don’t care about this stuff, and that they also have short-term memory, and that by Election Day it won’t matter. I don’t know that we’ve ever seen anything like this because to be honest with you, I think we all expected he would resign, and I think that is based on what we would expect most people to do. But he has not done that, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens with him in the next election.
Matt Grossmann: You have also done research on changes in partisanship over time, finding that it’s now less responsive to economic fundamentals and opinions of the current president, and that matches of course a long line of research that seems to suggest that people’s partisanship is just getting stronger and more influential in other aspects of their politics leading to some kind of online commentary that “LOL nothing matters anymore no matter what happens.” To what extent do you see this as kind of just another example of just polarization, meaning we’re going to see less and less effective of anything other than baseline partisanship?
Brian Hamel: I think that the declining scandal effects that we see for voters as well as the increasing effects for fundraising, I think it’s a great example of polarization. I think it’s a great example of the heightened partisan competition that we see. Our whole finding about this pre/post 1994… The reason we chose 1994 is because 1994 sort of marks the beginning of heightened partisan competition, particularly for Congress, where previously between the 50s and 1994 Democrats held the US House through all of that time period and it was never competitive. Starting in 1994, since then we’ve seen very tight margins of party control, and there’s always a possibility that it could flip, that the minority party could become the majority and that quest for power is very competitive.
I think this is very consistent with that, that as the stakes got higher people were clinging to their partisanship more than ever before. And so, people are not evaluating you on the basis of what you do in office necessarily. They’re more whetted to their party and they’re sticking to it no matter what, whether it’s scandal, whether it’s a bad economy that is happening under your party’s leadership. It doesn’t matter as much. In fact, not only do voters maybe not care so much, they’re actually going to work harder to defend that party through those bad times, whether it be scandal or bad economy, as much as they can. I think all of this fits very neatly together around work on partisanship and polarization in the modern era.
Matt Grossmann: As you mentioned, there is now kind of a standard politician response to scandals, not that any of it’s individually new, but there appears to be kind of a playbook on now where you can accuse the media and even the justice system, or the investigators of being politically motivated and affiliated with the opposition party. How much do you think that kind of response matters for these effects? How new is the coalescing behind this message that might be designed to get co-Partisans behind you?
Brian Hamel: I think this messaging tactic that politicians are taking, and certainly Trump is the best example of it. I hesitate to say that it’s new entirely because I think there is always an element of most politicians will deny, deny, deny until they’re not able to do so any more, and I think that’s always been true. I do think there’s this new element of attacking the media, of attacking the justice system that you mentioned, that seems pretty new.
As I said, I think this is a super important area for future research, again thinking about how do politicians respond when they’re under attack. I certainly the response of the attacker may drive a lot of the degree of these fundraising effects. So, the more, and more, and more that you can rile up the Partisan donor base to defend you, the more money you’re probably going to raise.
If you come out and say, “Hey, these allegations are true,” what incentive are you giving for Partisan donors to try to defend you, to try to give you the money and the ammunition that you need to go out and defend yourself and maintain your seat in office or win election. The more that you can paint yourself as the victim, the victim of a media system that’s out to get you, or a justice system.
The more that you can do that, the more you paint yourself as the victim and the more people are going to want to support you, people that are on your side. I think if we were to redo our analysis and we had data showing the degree to which politicians defended themselves against the attacks in their campaign ads, or their speeches, or rhetoric, I think you’d find that most of the effects would probably be in the places where politicians were behaving in that way.
Matt Grossmann: But what about a candidate whose facing multiple scandals? Mandi Bailey finds that doesn’t help any one scandal break through.
Mandi Bates Bailey: Steve and I got the idea for this paper with an old Simpsons episode. There’s an episode where Mr. Burns’s health is in question and he sees a physician, and the physician basically tells him through demonstration with a bunch of little rubber balls that have faces on it. He says, basically what’s going on here is you’ve got all these rubber balls and they’re trying to get through the door, but not a single one is a able to do so because they’re all clouding the door frame. They’re making it difficult for any one illness to attack his body because they’re all sort of working against each other.
That gave us the idea and put us on the road to cognitive load theory, which suggests that when you’re moving information from longterm memory to working memory that you only have a certain capacity to do so. There’s only a certain amount of considerations you’re able to hold in your head at one time. We started looking at Donald Trump and thinking, wow there’s all of these scandals that are impacting him, and some are decades old, and some are just coming out as a campaign is unfolding.
But nothing seems to stick, at least not with his supporters. What we wanted to do is we wanted to see how that would work, if we were looking at somebody that didn’t have as high profile. So, we utilized a fictitious congressional candidate that was a state senator, and we varied the partisanship and we placed it in a manipulated media frame so you’re getting a feed from a local newspaper.
Steve had a lot of fun coming up with pretend scandals and fake drug names, and all of that stuff, where some didn’t get any scandals and all, and some folks got one scandal and others got a slew of scandals. What we found was that one scandal does have some detrimental effects, but when you pile on, that doesn’t necessarily hurt the candidate anymore.
Matt Grossmann: Why don’t more scandals hurt candidates? You might think that some people would be concerned about one of them and other people concerned about another, or there might be kind of an Irish breaking point with this candidate at some point. Why doesn’t that happen with scandals?
Mandi Bates Bailey: Well, from what we were looking at, our perspective would say that there’s just too much for folks to deal with. After a while, it’s difficult for anything to be resonant. Interestingly enough, and relating to partisanship, interestingly enough we found that partisanship only seemed to play a role when you’re looking at willingness to vote for the candidate, or electability or whatever. We didn’t actually find that to be the case when we were looking at morality or favorability.
There’s this idea that you’re just sort of clogging up the road. It’s a traffic jam and only so much can get through.
Matt Grossmann: Is it true that partisanship kind of overwhelms these effects? Or can some of this information get through?
Mandi Bates Bailey: What we find is that partisanship only impacts electability, not necessarily perspectives of morality or favorability. There is some research, and there’s a [inaudible 00:31:19] piece in the British Journal of Political Science that looks at presidential approval. It illustrates that presidential approval is linked to the onset of media bias. It’s a little frightening because it would suggest that if out Partisans are less hostile, they’re less [inaudible 00:31:39] because the president in question is not as offensive as the person could be.
So, that’s a little scary because it suggests that favorability impacts our willingness to let scandals resonate, if that makes sense. I think that that’s a little frightening. Certainly, there’s research that looks to partisanship, but we don’t really find that in our research rather than to say, “Hey, you’re probably going to vote for the end Partisan.” You’re probably going to vote for the person with which you identify with, but that doesn’t mean that you like them.
Matt Grossmann: I went back to your article because former President Trump was recently indicted for a pay-off sex scandal, and he may be indicted for interfering the elections in Georgia, or some of the of the other federal investigations that he’s currently under investigation for. It seemed pertinent that maybe this would be interpreted through the lens of previous scandals, but how well would you apply your research to this situation?
Mandi Bates Bailey: There’s definitely a connection, right? The current indictment, the pending investigations, certainly those could be looked at as additional scandals on the ever-growing heap. There are I think a couple of different ways to look at this. First, it deals with already support for Trump. To Trump opponents, it’s possible that if these issues sort of play out in rapid succession, that they’re not going to be interpreted as separate scandals but rather cart of an overarching scandal that could be viewed as a slew of untoward and nefarious activities [inaudible 00:33:34] desperately getting and holding on to office that Trump no longer has a right to.
Alternatively, it could be seen in a completely different way to supports. If opponents are looking at it as this snowballing collection of misdeeds, supporters could look at it as a bigger witch hunt. Those scenarios, they relate to information processing. One’s just remember summary judgment. Another way to look at that, a second way to look at that, would be looking at it as separate scandals in our search effort to look at distinguishable sketchy behavior. What we did do was we didn’t create multiple treatments that had differing aspects of sketchy behavior.
So, if you got the single scandal treatment, you got the sexual misconduct. If you got additional scandals, you got several additional scandals from nepotism or whatever. We did not separate those out. That could be looked at as a shortcoming of our search from our perspective. We didn’t separate them out because we knew that we were going to have sample-sized issues within the sales if we did that. Our suggestions in working with cognitive load suggests that success of scandals aren’t necessarily any more detrimental than the initial hit. This could be why Trump opponents are sort of lamenting the New York case coming first.
The New York case is potentially the least damning of the cases that are coming forward to Trump were not dealing with trying to strong arm an election, or concealing classified documents. The New York case is basically hinging on a rider that applies only in New York. Certainly, I think it applies to cognitive load theory, if that answers your question sufficiently.
Matt Grossmann: It does. Just on the last point, yeah there have been people even in support of the indictment who say, “Well, this is not the strongest.” Do you have a sense of whether the order matters? Or is the case that it’s just going to be one scandal after another no matter what?
Mandi Bates Bailey: Cognitive load would suggest that the order does matter. What hits first is going to be more resonant, and as you pile on it you’re not necessarily going to weaken the effects, but you’re not going to strengthen them. We don’t come out of this suggesting that multiple scandals nullify the initial hit, but they also don’t strengthen it either. In this case, yeah people that have serious issues with Trump, you hear lines being cited like even a criminal can be innocent of a given crime. That’s kind of the argument that you’re hearing, whereas perhaps if the Georgia case unfolded first, that could be the hit that would be resonant as opposed… Or the Mar-a-Lago case, that could be the hit that was resonant as opposed to one in which it’s almost Lewinsky-esque, like we’re looking at a sexual misconduct situation that can just be interpreted as a felony in New York.
Yeah, a lot of people see this as the weakest of the cases, and cognitive load would suggest that yeah, that would benefit Trump and Trump supporters moreso than it would be those that are waiting for the final straw.
Matt Grossmann: I think the primary interpretation of Trump and these scandals has just been that they’re selling about Trump specifically that he’s somehow a Teflon candidate, at least for Republican voters. To what extent do you see your interpretation here as an alternative? I know you’ve studied Trump a lot, so is there something about him that would make him particularly immune to these scandals piling up?
Mandi Bates Bailey: This is a great question because it gets at a couple of different things. Our search involves public perception, not legality. From our perspective, if you’re going to be bad you might as well give it hell and be as bad as you can possibly be, and get the most bang for your buck. People tend to look at Trump and say that increasingly allegations of wrongdoing are just going to slide off, but our interpretation is a little bit different. It’s that from a mental perspective those allegations might not get even close enough to evaluations of him to slide off, like they’re not getting through in the first place to have any impact at all after the initial hit.
Matt Grossmann: Of course, Trump isn’t the only one with scandals. One of the most high profile congressional scandals recently also might fit the pattern. Congressman George Santos in New York was accused, and seems pretty guilty, of making up a lot of detail about their campaign biography. It did seem maybe that the pattern fit in that we just got another, and another, and another thing that he made up from his biography, and might have just been categorized as a liar or not.
On the other hand, maybe this is the case where he would be hurt with voters, it’s just that the voters didn’t find out until later. I guess, how well does that fit the case?
Mandi Bates Bailey: This is another great consideration. It’s interesting because Santos seems to be treated as a pariah with his own party while other members of his party can traffic in conspiracy theories and sort of get… I’m thinking about Marjorie Taylor Green and Lauren Bober, and they can get caught up in outright lies. Santos seems to attract a lot of media attention for the mistruth. I think that there a couple of things we need to consider when we look at Santos. One, there’s a difference between how we look at congressional candidates, and how we look at presidential candidates.
Voters are myopic, and so the further away we get from this we have to ask ourselves if Santos runs again in 2024, how much of this the voters are going to remember. Our search doesn’t get into temporal effects enough, so we’re using it as static instrument. I think that’s one thing to keep in mind. But certainly, cognitive load theory could apply. So could online processing models. There’s so much negativity that it allows very little to get through. Again, look at this in comparison with Clinton in 2016 versus Trump, whenever we heard anything negative related to Clinton, it was always emails, emails, emails.
From time to time, you might see Benghazis were filtered in, but generally it was all emails, and that message became resonant where it was whiplash with Trump. You never knew what was coming at you. To that extent, Santos is very similar. You’re getting that whiplash. This certainly introduces new opportunities for research when you’re dealing with a congressional candidate, and one that has sort faced a little more rebuke from the party than Trump did. So yeah, actually that’s somewhere where we’re tooling with going with our research, is looking at the Santos case, although not necessarily utilizing Santos.
Matt Grossmann: None of the responses to scandals are fully new, but there seems to be a pre-established playbook on now where you say your opponents are politically motivated, luck, they’ve been involved in the opposition party, you don’t treat the media or the justice system as being independent. They’re kind of part of the problem. You’d even got the deep state, or of people’s ideas that “People within the government are conspiring against me.” That might seem to make it easier to go against people who are flinging multiple scandals.
So, to what extent do you think that that kind of matters, the response to the attack, or even this narrative that can be easily deployed in the face of lots of scandals?
Mandi Bates Bailey: There’s been a lot of research in the credibility of sources, and I think that that speaks to where we’re going with this particular question. Certainly, Jamie Drunkman has some good research in this world, and I think the intriguing aspect of where we are now is that we’re at the intersection. I live in Florida, so that’s kind of an ugly word right now, anything that uses “intersection”, but we’re at the intersection of information processing and conspiracy theories, and media effects.
Trump spent a lot of time casting doubt on media and the justice system, and creating a situation where, to at least to his supporters, even if you can overcome the limits of processing so much scandalous information, casting doubt on the messenger has created an element of political immunity. Certainly, is a lot of folks in our field and more broadly in the public square, have lamented this way of thinking can have some really detrimental effects on Democratic governance. We can mitigate a bit of that with education and information literacy, but higher ed is under attack in certain parts of the country.
There’s an exposure issue here when we’re talking about individuals selectively consuming media. So, there’s a lot going on and there’s a lot to unpack in that question. If we’re talking about the extent to which we can really sit down and evaluate scandals and what that means to an individual’s ability to govern, we first have to get through that hump of hearing the information in the first place. When you cast out on the messenger, your ability to look at the scandal as something that actually transpired rather than something that’s just created is compromised.
Matt Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. The Science of Politics is available biweekly from the Niskanen Center. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. If you liked this discussion, here are the episodes you should check out next linked on our website, When Information About Candidates Persuades Voters, The Electoral Effect of Impeachment, How Republicans Lost 2018 By Being Too Close to Trump, What Became of Never-Trump Republicans, and Why do Americans Accept Democratic Backsliding?
Thanks to Brian Hamel and Mandi Bates Bailey for joining me. Please check out How Voters Punish and Donors Protect Legislators Embroiled in Scandal, and Scandal-Ridden Campaigns. Then, listen in next time.