FIGURING FAITH | When he left office two years ago, it seemed unlikely that Mark Sanford’s future would hold another successful bid for elected office. Since 2009, when the former governor of South Carolina admitted that his absences from the state to allegedly hike the Appalachian Trail were, in fact, trips to Argentina to carry on an extramarital affair, Sanford’s political death has been all but sealed. Sanford, however, handily won the Republican primary for the House of Representatives seat he held in the 1990s before he was elected governor. And his victory in Tuesday’s South Carolina special general election shows just how far political redemption can stretch.
Sanford’s campaign also has implications for former U.S. Rep. Anthony Weiner, who resigned from Congress in 2011 amid a sexting scandal, and is now reportedly considering a candidacy in this year’s New York City mayoral election. Setting Sanford’s “God of second chances” aside, just how much are voters prepared to forgive?
A survey conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in June 2011, in the midst of the scandal that ended with Weiner’s resignation, shows that Sanford’s path to redemption among his Republican constituents was much steeper than Weiner’s will be, if he chooses to run. This is not because Americans perceive digital infidelity to be a lighter offense than other kinds of adultery. Overall, Americans do not differentiate between sexting and having an affair: nearly identical majorities say that politicians who are caught sending sexually explicit messages to someone who is not their spouse (56 percent) and politicians who cheat on their wives (57 percent) should resign from office. And for both Sanford and Weiner, their subsequent denials that infidelity took place are more damning in voters’ eyes than the indiscretions themselves: nearly 7-in-10 (68 percent) Americans say officials who lie about immoral sexual acts should resign.
But Sanford, running for reelection in a deeply conservative district, had a higher bar to clear when it came to voters’ expectations about integrity and sexual morality. Neither Republicans nor Democrats give politicians a free pass when it comes to lying or infidelity, but more than 8-in-10 (82 percent) Republicans agree that an elected official who lies to cover up an immoral sexual act should resign, compared to less than two-thirds (64 percent) of Democrats. Similarly, 7-in-10 (70 percent) Republicans agree that an elected official who cheats on his wife should resign, compared to less than 6-in-10 (59 percent) Democrats.
More on point for the question of redemption, Republicans are simply less likely than Democrats to believe that a politician who commits a moral error in his personal life can still execute his official duties in an ethical manner. While nearly half (49 percent) of Democrats agree that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life, a majority (55 percent) of Republicans disagree.
Because his road to redemption was much steeper, Mark Sanford’s successful campaign in the Republican primary and eventual victory in the race bodes well for Weiner in the mayoral race. The data also shows that Democrats, like Americans overall, are more likely to say that financial indiscretions like taking a bribe (91 percent) should be punished with resignation, than they are to say that sexual indiscretions require vacating office. Given that the mayoral race in the Democratic stronghold of New York City has already been marred by allegations of corruption, the combination of relatively weaker concerns about the personal failings of public officials among Democrats and stronger concerns about embezzlement and bribery may spell good news for Weiner later this year.