Anchorage Mayor Ethan Berkowitz resigned recently after admitting he’d sexted with a local news anchor who is not his wife. Former Rep. Katie Hill (D-Calif.) resigned last year after allegations that she’d been in improper sexual relationships. Yet claims of infidelity or even sexual crimes don’t always lead to defeat or resignations. In 2016, voters selected Trump as president despite multiple women accusing him of sexual assault.
So are sex scandals disqualifiers? It’s not that simple. Conversations with voters, historians and relationship experts point to a consensus that affairs can be damaging, but aren’t that shocking — or a definite dealbreaker.
North Carolina voter DeNeiro Saunders is a Christian who doesn’t like to excuse infidelity. But he chose Cunningham because there are bigger issues at stake — combating climate change, expanding access to health care and beating back the coronavirus. “What I thought about was the seniors who can’t afford prescription drugs and the child from the inner city who wanted to go to college but couldn’t afford it,” he says.
Saunders is a Democrat, but he aligns himself with Trump voters on one thing: He is willing to overlook a politician’s extramarital affairs if they’ll be able to achieve larger things he cares about. “It’s hypocritical for people who think sex scandals are a big deal and yet vote for Donald Trump,” he says.
Polling data from The Washington Post and ABC News suggests there are many voters like Saunders. In an October poll surveying likely North Carolina voters, 81 percent said party control of the Senate was extremely or very important, while 26 percent said the same about allegations that Cunningham was having an affair. Fifty percent said the affair was “not so important,” while 21 percent deemed it “somewhat important.”
These days, a pandemic that has killed at least 241,000 Americans has a way of putting things in perspective. “We have bigger things to think about — life, death, survival,” says Judy Smith, chief executive of the crisis PR firm Smith & Co., whose work was the basis for the show “Scandal.” Smith says that, because Cunningham admitted the affair and then quickly moved on, the damage was minimal.
“This 2020 election is unlike any previous elections we’ve ever seen,” Smith adds. “We’re worried about getting our kids back into school, finding and keeping jobs.” In this state of emergency, there’s less time to focus on infidelity.
American political figures have been cheating on their wives since the days of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. And the ability to overlook infidelity goes back decades. President Bill Clinton, who was impeached after lying about having an affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky, maintained approval ratings of 50 percent or higher throughout that scandal and left office with an approval rating of 66 percent in 2001. Although the American public didn’t widely know about John F. Kennedy’s philandering while he was in office, the revelations in the 1970s didn’t have much of an effect on his legacy, notes Barbara Perry, a professor and director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.
But in the days before JFK, a politician simply being divorced was a career-killer. Perry points out that when Adlai Stevenson lost his 1952 and 1956 Democratic bids for president against Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower, Stevenson’s marital status probably played a large role. “Simply being divorced was probably an issue for Stevenson,” Perry says. At the time, fewer than 10 percent of married couples divorced. It was also an issue in Nelson Rockefeller’s unsuccessful 1964 bid for the Republican nomination.
Fast-forward to 1980, when Ronald Reagan became America’s first divorced person to ascend to the presidency. His first marriage, to Jane Wyman, had been brief and by the time he ran for office, he and Nancy Reagan had been married for nearly three decades. To the American public, divorce was no longer scandalous.
Nowadays, the same could be said for your typical extramarital affair. Voters are usually of two minds when it comes to infidelity, Perry says. They either think: “If that person lies or cheats on their spouse and violates most sacred laws of marriage, why would I trust that person to be the leader of the free world?”
“And then there’s another group of voters who say: ‘Is the president doing his job? Can this person do their job?’ ” If the answer is yes, Perry says, they’re likely not to care what he does in his personal life, concluding “that’s between him and his wife.”
“Ironically, the higher the office, the more people are willing to give them a pass,” Perry adds, noting that when Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich stepped down from the role after the GOP’s poor showing in the 1998 midterms, his would-be replacement Rep. Bob Livingston (R-La.) ended up resigning from Congress after admitting his own past extramarital affairs. Gingrich had also been cheating on his wife during this time, although that didn’t come out until later.
Remember when South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) disappeared in 2009, telling his staff he was hiking the Appalachian Trail when he was actually visiting his mistress in Argentina? It was shocking at the time, but after he apologized Sanford won a seat in the U.S. House.
Americans love a redemption story, but when a philandering politician just can’t seem to clean up their act, voters are ready to move on. When former congressman Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) sexted with underage girls, apologized, stepped down from Congress and then ran for mayor of New York in 2013 — and more sexually compromising material came out! — there was just no more patience, and he finished fifth in the primary.
When Hill faced an ethics investigations into allegations that she’d had inappropriate extramarital affairs with a campaign and congressional staffer, she quickly stepped down. Annie Seifullah, a victim’s advocate with the C.A. Goldberg law firm, which is representing Hill, says women can be judged more harshly when it comes to infidelity. “The leeway and the forgiveness that is provided to female public figures is not the same as for men,” Seifullah says. Seifullah wasn’t authorized to speak about Hill’s case, but did emphasize that public figures deserve the right to sexual privacy.
Seifullah also points out that younger politicians may have more compromising material that could be leaked at any moment, as sexting is quite common. “Our next generation of politicians will have that type of content out there. We need to be able to handle the fact that politicians have sex lives and that the consensual exchange of intimate images is normal.” However, when these images are released into the public, Seifullah says, such disclosures can especially discourage women from running for office or seeking other high-profile positions.
Marie Murphy, a relationship coach specializing in infidelity, says that as a society, we tend to think cheating is an indelible stain on someone’s record, when “it’s really just a flavor of something we’re all doing. We’re all seeking pleasure, we’re all seeking to feel good, we’re all looking for relief from the things that are troubling us.”
We tend to impose meaning on these actions, asking ourselves: “What does this mean about their moral character? These may be fair questions to ask,” Murphy says. “But we also have to look at the ways these sorts of behaviors are common or not unique before we look at them as signals that something is wrong.”
What might have become of Hill’s political career if she’d stuck it out in Congress a bit longer? We’ll never know. For now, she’s gone Hollywood, where sex scandals are less of a liability. She’s launched a podcast and has written a memoir, which is reportedly being adapted into a film starring Elisabeth Moss.
After vacating her House seat in Southern California, it flipped back to red in a special election and was up for grabs again last week, when Democrat Christy Smith challenged the Republican incumbent Mike Garcia.
The votes are still being tallied.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Nelson Rockefeller’s party affiliation.