How Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer are winning

July 16, 2013

The first question anyone asks when they see poll numbers -- like these from Quinnipiac University -- that show Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer winning their respective races in New York City is: "How the heck is this happening?"


Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer

As in, how can two disgraced former politicians -- one who sent pictures of his man parts to random women on Twitter, the other who partook in a high-priced prostitution ring -- already have seemingly successfully rehabbed themselves in the eyes of the public.

The answer -- or at least a big part of it -- lies in a number buried in the Q poll. When asked to choose which was the worse offense, just 22 percent of New York City Democrats named sexual misconduct while 69 percent named financial impropriety.

What's clear is that Democrats-- at least those polled by Quinnipiac  -- tend to regard the sort of sexual wrongdoing that Spitzer and Weiner engaged in as significantly less important than if, say, the men had fleeced the state financially.

This data point is, in many ways, reflective of how the Bill Clinton impeachment scandal played out. While many people believed it would be his undoing, many voters seemed to handle it all with a shrug, and saw Republicans as overplaying their hand on the issue.

That's not to say that the public approved of Clinton's behavior. Rather, they didn't see it as a broader reflection of how he had or would do the job to which he was elected.  That same line of thinking may well be happening with Weiner and Spitzer. While few voters are going to approve of how the two men conducted themselves in their private lives, they seem to believe that both mens' performance in office (or potential in office) outweighs their sexual foibles.

It's also important to remember that most people tend to believe that all politicians -- except, possibly, their own Member of Congress -- are corrupt. The general belief when a Member gets caught doing something bad -- sexual or otherwise -- is that "they all do it."

In fact, the likes of Rep. Mark Sanford (R) have actually used their sexual fall from grace to their advantage, arguing that they have been humbled, that they are the last honest man in politics because all of their secrets have been exposed. It worked for Sanford in South Carolina earlier this year and you can be sure both Spitzer and Weiner will make a similar case to voters this summer and fall.

All of the above isn't to say that either Spitzer or Weiner are sure things. Neither are -- although Spitzer is quite clearly in the driver's seat to be the next New York City Comptroller. Weiner leads but is certain to face a runoff -- a race that will test just how much New York City voters care about his personal life.

Still, for both men to be at or near the front of polls five years removed from shuffling off the political stage in disgrace is a testament to how people -- again, at least in new York City -- view sexual misconduct and why it's not a disqualifying trait for future bids for elected office.

Chris Cillizza writes “The Fix,” a politics blog for the Washington Post. He also covers the White House.
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Sean Sullivan · July 16, 2013