Home > Applying Political Science, Political Campaigns, Political Science, Research > Sex, Drugs, and Genital Photos: Does Character Count in Political Elections?

Sex, Drugs, and Genital Photos: Does Character Count in Political Elections?

English: New York State Governor Eliot Spitzer...

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Though we publicly eviscerate politicians who engage in extramarital affairs, hire prostitutes, or send photos of their genitalia, we remained glued to the screen when such news flashes across the computer or t.v.  Former frontrunner Cain is now reconsidering whether to continue his push for the Republican party nomination after a set of damaging accusations of harassment and infidelity were revealed.  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/30/us/politics/herman-cain-may-quit-after-affair-and-harassment-accusations.html.

This summer, Rep. Anthony Weiner resigned his office after finally admitting he had sent photographs of his genitals to a number of women and he has been laying low since.  On the contrary, Eliot Spitzer scored a spot as a political commentator for CNN in the aftermath of his resignation from the governorship of NY — after it was revealed that he had hired the services of prostitutes illegally.

In 1998, President Clinton was impeached (though not removed), when the House found him guilty of lying under oath about an affair he had with his intern.

Does questionably moral private behavior impinge on one’s ability to conduct his or her professional office?  Can one cheat on one’s wife without necessarily “cheating” his constituents?

What do Americans think?  In other words, what is the real impact of private scandal on voter preferences for candidates?  In the minds of Americans, does character count?

Scholars have only begun to wrap their brains around the first question.  For instance, political scientists Maule and Goidel conducted an experiment to determine what variables influence reactions to a variety of political scandals (Maule and Goidel 2003).  Interestingly, the sex of the officeholder had a role in determining individual reactions to scandal, though the type of scandal and individual acceptance of gender stereotypes did as well.

But what if you’re the unfortunate politician who’s been accused of scandalous wrongdoing?  When accused of a scandal, what is the most effective political strategy an official can take?  Deny?  Confirm?  Sigal et al. (1988) experimentally tested atttitudes toward fictitious candidates who denied or apologized for either sexual or financial misconduct.  Their findings indicated that individuals were more likely to vote for the candidates who denied misconduct rather than apologized for it.

At the end of the day at the voting booth, we’ll all need to answer the normative question about whether character should count.  Regardless, the next year promises to be a scandal-filled and glorious presidential race.

  1. Mitchell
    November 30, 2011 at 11:55 am

    For the most part, I don’t care about politician’s private lives, as long as they don’t break the law. Anthony Weiner did nothing to break the law, and if you say that what he’s doing in his private life effects his job, he was the guy that fought for health care for 9/11 first responders and I don’t think whatever pictures he was sending influenced whatever political positions he was holding.

    When it comes to breaking the law that’s different. Senator David Vitter, who also had ordeals with prostitutes, is still in office, and even came back to an applause from his colleagues when he returned, even though what he did was illegal. But I really don’t care about that either because its his own private life and I don’t care what he does with it. In the end, he was having consensual sex with somebody else and I could care less about that.

    Herman Cain is a bit different because he was charged for harassment which i think is actually serious compared to Weiner, Vitter, Spitzer, or Clinton. Sexual harassment isn’t okay under any circumstance, and I’m not surprised he’s reassessing his campaign.

    Should moral character count? To a certain extent. It seems that the media is really just sensationalist, and they don’t really care about moral character, and more just a good juicy story. Newt Gingrich has had two different affairs/mistresses, but no one brings that up. To say moral character should be considered when deciding on a politician is okay, but what people consider morally acceptable is different. People were very divided over whether Weiner should’ve resigned. Personally, I don’t think he should have because its not what makes a good legislator.

  2. darisylvester
    November 30, 2011 at 12:05 pm

    Mitchell,
    Thanks for your response. I think you raise a number of really good points. I’d want to follow-up with you and ask your thoughts on the question I think is perhaps more interesting (and frankly, one which I’m not sure I have a definitive answer for): Can an elected official live an immoral/scandal-ridden personal life, and yet do an upright/highly moral job in public office? Can there really be a firm demarcation between one’s personal and private life without the possibility of one bleeding over into the other?

  3. Jennifer L.
    November 30, 2011 at 3:23 pm

    No matter what a politician does, the media will want to trash the public view of their character. If its true or not. being a politician is generally giving up privacy. I believe politicians should be criticized for their acts while being a sitting officeholder. involving their personal life into the public only when deemed absolutely necessary or when breaking the law in any way shape or form. people in office are role models and should follow the laws better then the people themselves. then again, we are all human

  4. Sarah B.
    November 30, 2011 at 3:46 pm

    I think that the politicians need a presentable image in order to keep their supporters. They lose those supporters once they decide to do something stupid such as hire prostitutes or send suggestive pictures. Even in other cases, in which a politician has an affair, it is something that might hit a certain group of people who have been cheated on. Why would those people vote for someone who can do something horrible? The politicians, again, need to maintain a presentable life and they put their character and election in jeopardy when making decisions that they know will not stay private. It’s their choice, and I think that someone should be voted for who can maintain a proper image and the public should consider their private life along with their public life in order to ensure a presentable politician is being elected.

  5. Nathan Reed
    November 30, 2011 at 10:30 pm

    Candidates should always avoid scandals whenever possible. Everyone should always avoid scandals whenever possible. You never know when you may be thrust up into the spotlight. I think that one reason everyone knows Cain, Romney, and Perry is because they have had slip-ups, whether it be speaking problems or a sex scandal. I think one reason nobody knows Rick Santorum is precisely because he has no scandals, at least none that have come up yet. I do think that some scandals are set up, while others are sincere. I do think it is kind of suspicious that these ladies are just coming forward when Cain was gaining in the polls. The same thing happened when Clarence Thomas was gaining popularity as a Supreme Court justice. Whether these are really scandals or merely cries for attention, politicians should still always be on the top of their game

  6. Jocelyn
    December 1, 2011 at 9:10 am

    When candidates run for president, something of scandal will always be brought up to try and humiliate the person. Essentially I feel it is wrong for the media to do that because a lot of these bad things being brought up in the media is something that happened years ago and its not relevant to what’s going on for that particular presided now. I would want a leader who could run this country efficiently and I could care less about what he did 20 years ago or what have you.

  7. Christopher McHenry
    December 1, 2011 at 9:22 am

    Honestly I just find it amusing to see some of these politicians involved in scandals. The media has people under the impression that politicians are not human beings and that they don’t make mistakes. I really can care less about what these politicians have going on in their private lives or what they do behind close doors. What they do privately whether that be having an affair or engaging in prostitution not my business. I feel that as long as they are coming to work everyday doing the job that they promised the American people and set out to make sure the country has productivity I can care less. When I think of moral issues I think about GOD , so if these politicians are continuing to engage in private scandals that’s between them and GOD. All I want is for these politicians to do their job!

  8. daniel kemether
    December 1, 2011 at 9:36 am

    I agree with mitchell for the most part, I don’t care about their private lives as long as they are making rational decisions in office and their personal life doesn’t bleed into their political life. we think that our elected are somehow superior to ourselves and since they represent the United States they aren’t allowed to make mistakes. But in all honesty every human is flawed, every human makes bad decisions, and the only difference between normal citizens and politicians is that politicians have the money and power to cover up their mistakes.

  9. Irain
    December 1, 2011 at 10:14 am

    Character does count when it comes to the image politicians are portraying. People like to have the idea that their politicians are faithful people who they can trust. The purpose is for the politician to be a model citizen, to be almost perfect is what is asked from them. To be brought into a scandal especially involving sex and drugs is career ending for most. Thats why politicians must be careful with their private personal actions for all keep a watchful eye.

  10. Hillary
    December 1, 2011 at 11:42 am

    people love to watch politicians get in trouble for affairs and other sexual mishaps because it’s entertainment. i personally find it hilarious that Cain may drop his presidential bid over his affair, mostly because he’s given many reasons already why he should quit his run, for example when he had to have that reporter remind him of the facts on Libya. in the end if it is entertaining people care, therefore when politicians have a scandal people love to watch because usually it’s pretty hysterical.

  11. Neil S.
    December 1, 2011 at 1:09 pm

    Character matters, it probably shouldn’t, but it does. I think it matters because people in general hold elected officials and public figures to a higher standard than your average person that isn’t famous.
    A lot of people say that they have no interest in the personal lives of other people, but history has proven time and time again that what people say and what people actually do are two very different things. A lot of people will also say that its the media that is the driving force behind the scandal pushing it into the limelight, but that is the job of the media – to report, and the media reports what will sell, its why we have phrases like “sex sells” and “if it bleeds it leads.” People are much too interested in other peoples lives for these allegations to not surface.

  12. Ana W.
    December 1, 2011 at 2:36 pm

    I think that politicians do need to keep up characters and morals. They are representing the citizens of America and it is important for them to realize that once they take that position they with be in the eye of public scrutiny. As representatives it is important to have decent morals. However, their personal lives are their personal lives, and, as long as they are not breaking the law, they should be allowed to live their life how they choose. If however, they do something that the constituents do not agree with, the constituents should simply not vote for them again.

  13. yesenia gutierrez
    December 1, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    I don’t really know what to think. One could make the argument that how a person is witht their spouse essentially is the same mentallty with which they will run their office. On the other hand, one could say that they are seperate and have no impact on one another. I should not care what they do with their personal lives but I do. Charachter influences every part of a person whether that person is willing to admit it or not is their perogative. When they cross the line of cheating or committing an illegal act the line is crossed, in another situation it could be just as easy to do so. I am not saying that this will happen in all cases, but for the most part, you can’t go back.

  14. Lauren Barrera
    December 1, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    while determining whether or not a person is able to fulfill a highly moral job, with ethics and character you have to look to their personal lives. If they have lied to their husbands or wives, people they should love most in their lives what makes voters think they won’t lie to them about following through on policy matters? If a person has a scandalous background, I’m not too sure if they are the most trustworthy, and loyal person I want representing me.

  15. Samuel Park
    December 1, 2011 at 2:55 pm

    I believe that the actions of the person shows the persons character. If the candidate had a history of drug use and sex scandals, that takes away from the persons credibility to be a leader. Although the private lives shouldn’t matter, i believe that it affects the way people vote.

  16. Emma Fonseca
    December 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I agree with what Sarah is arguing, that when politicians lose themselves, they lose their supporters. It is a media frenzy when someone in the limelight is exploited for their wrongdoing. It is annoying that people give more attention to the politicians mistakes than the things they are trying to change for our country. However, it is good that people know the mistakes of who is leading them.

  17. hannah
    December 1, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    I agree with Danny and Mitchell, politicians are people too and they have their own lives and what they do with them, as long as it doesn’t effect their attitude in political office. I mean it doesn’t mean that I don’t take it into account while voting, but I understand that there is more to life then their political stature.

  18. Brishonn
    December 4, 2011 at 2:00 pm

    I feel you know what you’re getting yourself into, so don’t be surprised if past history is revealed that you didn’t want revealed

  1. November 30, 2011 at 12:00 am
  2. November 30, 2011 at 12:45 am

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