How Republican and Democratic sex scandals differ

Over at The Fix, Scott Clement just posted a fascinating analysis of federal sex scandals going back to 1974. He concludes that “suffering a personal scandal cuts an officeholder’s reelection chances in half,” and surmises that this bodes poorly for Louisiana’s Rep. Vance McAllister (R), currently in hot water over some on-camera shenanigans with a female staffer.

Since 1974 there have been at least 39 sex scandals involving sitting congressmen, senators, or presidents (hi Bill!). Granted, 39 cases don't make for a large sample. But nonetheless some interesting observations do emerge. All of the elected officials involved have been male. Sex scandals have been slightly more prevalent among Republican lawmakers (22) than Democratic ones (17), although historically speaking this is largely due to the Republicans’ very strong recent showing – three quarters of sex scandals since the year 2000 have involved Republicans.

sex scandals democrat republican

Republican sex scandals have also been more likely to involve adultery than Democratic ones: 86 percent of the GOP scandals involved an elected official cheating on his wife, compared to only 65 percent of Democratic scandals. The remaining scandals all dealt with other types of sexual indiscretion.

adultery republicans democrats

Democratic officials, on the other hand, were twice as likely to bring their bad behavior into the workplace – 53 percent of Democratic scandals involved some sort of workplace harassment or dalliance, compared to 27 percent among Republicans.

democrat sex harassment workplace

Setting the morality aside for the moment, the burning question is how much these affairs affect a politician’s re-election chances. Clement notes that overall, a sex scandal slices reelection chances in half, although voters seemed to be more forgiving in the '70s and '80s than today. (Note that Scott's numbers below don't include McAllister, whose reelection prospects are currently unknown, or Tennessee's Scott Desjarlais, whose indiscretions surfaced in 2012 just a few weeks before the elections, which didn't give voters much time to consider them).

Finally, it’s worth noting that Democratic voters have been more forgiving of scandal than their Republican counterparts – “Democrats have been twice as likely to win their next re-election contest as Republicans, 53 to 25 percent,” according to Clement’s analysis. Partially this is because voters hate hypocrites, and there are few things more hypocritical than a candidate who runs on family values - as Republicans have - and then cheats on his spouse.

All of which goes to show that cheaters do sometimes prosper, particularly if said cheater is a Democrat.

Christopher Ingraham writes about politics, drug policy and all things data. He previously worked at the Brookings Institution and the Pew Research Center.

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