Political observers in the Lowcountry may be asking: “Can Mark Sanford overcome his sex scandal and win the upcoming special election in South Carolina’s 1st Congressional district?” We will know for sure by May 7. For those who can’t wait, we wanted to share some academic research on the electoral consequences of scandal and offer our thoughts on Sanford’s political comeback.
Sanford’s challenge is to minimize the injury to his reputation caused by one of the stranger sex scandals in political history.
What does political science have to offer on Sanford’s reelection chances and the effect of his scandal? A recent study by Scott Basinger of the University of Houston helps put the Sanford scandal in perspective. Basinger studied 246 scandals involving members of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1973 to 2010. He classified scandals as “financial,” “corruption,” “sex,” “political,” and “other.” It may surprise you to learn that financial misconduct accounted for 40 percent of the sample, the largest category, while only 17 percent of congressional scandals involved sexual malfeasance.
Perhaps most importantly, Basinger found that 60 percent of incumbents survived their scandal and were successfully re-elected. Though he’s not an incumbent, that fact alone is welcome news for Sanford. Basinger also finds that, when lumped together, scandals decrease a candidate’s vote margin in the general election by 5.1 percent. But not all scandals are created equal. Surprisingly, political scandals have the smallest effect, statistically indistinguishable from zero. Corruption scandals, on the other hand, cost lawmakers 7.8 percent points on average. Sex scandals, by comparison, cost incumbent lawmakers only 5.3 percent of the vote.
Basinger also finds that the most significant predictor of an incumbent’s vote share in a general election is their prior election vote share. In fact, there’s almost a 1:1 relationship between a candidate’s pre-scandal vote share and their post-scandal vote share. What does this mean for Sanford? In his 2006 gubernatorial race, Sanford received over 60 percent of the vote in Berkeley, Dorchester, and Beaufort counties, and 57 percent in Charleston County. So if the past is any predictor, which we think it is, even with a 5 percent penalty for his sex scandal, Sanford should win the general election easily.
But it’s not all good news for Sanford. Basinger stresses that primary elections are particularly challenging for politicians involved in a scandal. His data show that many scandal-plagued politicians simply retire rather than face the electorate and, if they decide to continue in politics, primaries represent an especially high hurdle. Basinger’s data show that scandal-tainted incumbents are almost 13 times more likely to lose a primary election than a scandal-free incumbent.
In sum, the evidence suggests that if Sanford is able to win the Republican primary, as many expect him to, he stands an excellent chance of getting over the hump and returning to the House of Representatives. While each case is different, the evidence suggests that most politicians can recover from a scandal.
Knotts is professor and department chair of political science at the College of Charleston. Ragusa is assistant professor of political science at the college.