Is Scott Walker really facing any ‘scandal’ at all?

June 20

In Brandon Rottinghaus’ post earlier Friday morning, he described research on the consequences of political scandal in light of the investigation into whether Scott Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign illegally coordinated with outside groups.  This post attracted criticism, visible in our Twitter timeline.   Here’s one example:


The criticism centers on the fact that the post did not explicitly mention that a state court judge and a federal district court judge have ordered a halt to the investigation into Walker’s 2010 gubernatorial campaign, and that the prosecutors who initiated the investigation face a lawsuit alleging that they have violated the First Amendment rights of the conservative groups who were investigated.  Indeed, the reason that we now know more about the prosecutors’ investigation is that documents were unsealed by the federal appeals court judge who is now considering this lawsuit. (The post did link to Niraj Chokshi’s post, which mentioned some of this history, but did not get into the details.)  Although the case has not been completely resolved, court rulings to date suggest that, contrary to the language of our post, Walker is most likely not in “legal hot water.”

There is, more generally, frustration among some conservatives that the news media is emphasizing the claims that prosecutors made without giving comparable emphasis to the subsequent judicial rulings against the prosecutors.  Here is a summary of all of the twists and turns in the case so far.

Our point in publishing Rottinghaus’s post, which is consistent with our general mission as a blog, isn’t to make a partisan point — e.g., about the merits of the case against Walker or lawsuit against the prosecutors — but to bring to bear relevant research.  The research that Rottinghaus discusses suggests that a scandal can lower a politician’s approval ratings and affect the success of his or her presidential campaign.  Do these findings apply to Walker, given that how little headway prosecutors have made in proving the legal case against him?

It depends on what makes a “scandal.”  The quotation marks are intentional.  Some research on scandal, notably that of Brendan Nyhan, argues that scandals are not just about the facts of a case but about the surrounding political context.  Indeed, aspects of Walker’s experience nicely confirm Nyhan’s findings.  For example, scandals often arise and “last” longer when a politician has very low approval among voters in the other party.  This is certainly true for Walker.

Nyhan also finds that scandals depend on the decisions of the news media.  The more congested the news agenda, the less likely scandals are to be reported on.  In other words, scandals tend to get more media coverage when there are fewer other stories for the news media to report on.

So, to my mind, here is where the current status of the case and the political science research suggest for Walker:

  • News coverage of the allegations against Walker is likely to persist, at least episodically, because of this polarization among Wisconsin voters.  The fact that Walker is running for reelection may provide additional motivation for stories about these allegations.
  • However, the news agenda is at least somewhat congested now. Eric Cantor’s defeat and the subsequent leadership elections for House Republicans, events in Iraq, other midterm races, and the like will compete for attention.
  • Moreover, if the appellate judge’s ruling is in Walker’s favor, I would suspect that there will be less news coverage — at least than there would have been if the court ruled differently.  “Scandals” may not be based on facts alone, but at some point, the many challenges that this investigation has faced in court should weaken the rationale to report on the investigation further.
  • Even if the investigation were to go forward, there is the subsequent question of whether and when it could prove anything. The other challenge is that the investigation concerns a topic that voters typically don’t care very much about anyway: campaign finance.  To quote from Danny Hayes’s summary of the research:

But political scandals – involving campaign finance or disclosure misdeeds – don’t appear to matter at all. It may be that voters simply care less when incumbents break campaign finance rules, and it may also be easier for politicians to explain away such violations as the result of complicated campaign finance regulations.

Putting that altogether, my bet would be that the investigation into Walker’s earlier campaign doesn’t have much impact.  Walker seems likely to win reelection as governor and, barring some about-face in the course of the investigation, I suspect that it won’t prove a major factor should he decide to run for president.

John Sides is an Associate Professor of Political Science at George Washington University. He specializes in public opinion, voting, and American elections.
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