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There are, however, a multitude of other individual-level factors that may also influence how voters evaluate officials accused of financial or sexual misconduct. First, the type of scandal should influence evaluations of the accused. Experimental research shows that the public tends to evaluate accusations of financial misconduct more harshly than “moral” or sexual violations (Doherty et al., 2011; Sigal et al., 1988). In this way, it could be said that the public is “rational,” possibly accounting for the magnitude of the scandal accusations when assessing the allegations.
Similarly, this study predicts that financial scandals will garner more negative ratings. Formally, H5: Individuals will evaluate officials accused of financial misconduct more negatively than officials accused of sexual misconduct.
The accused official’s party affiliation – Republican, Democrat, or some other party – combined with the voters’ affiliation or ideological leanings should also affect how the
(Brewer, 1979; Huddy, 2013; Tajfel 1982), even when those members are accused of committing heinous actions (Morgan, Mullen, & Skitka, 2010). Likeminded partisans share a common identity that binds them to each other (Huddy, 2013), and encourages a defensive posture toward individuals who may threaten group norms. This is especially true among ideological conservatives, who prize loyalty to the group as a chief moral virtue (Graham, Haidt & Nosek, 2009; Haidt, 2012). It is likely that partisans, or liberal-conservative ideologues, consider the party identification of an official accused of scandal, with conservatives punishing Republican officials less severely than Democratic officials and liberals the opposite. Formally, H6A: Conservatives will evaluate a Democratic official accused of a scandal more negatively than a Republican official accused of an identical scandal.
H6B: Liberals will evaluate a Republican official accused of a scandal more negatively than a Democratic official accused of an identical scandal.
All else being equal, conservatives and liberals should protect members of their affiliated groups, depositing highly negative evaluations on officials of the opposition party while deflecting blame from a member of their group. Moral values associated with liberal and conservative political ideology may also alter how voters evaluate accused officials. When voters read scandal news, certain keyword cues may prompt them to think about and evaluate the conduct in moral terms. When news audiences are exposed to a story about a wealthy congressman accused of cheating on his taxes, for instance, their Fairness / Cheating moral value may be primed, influencing how the individual evaluates the events, agents and actions described.
When audiences are exposed to a story about sexual misconduct, their Sanctity / Degradation value may be activated, affecting evaluations of the sexual misconduct. Since liberals lean more heavily on Fairness / Cheating when making moral judgments, and since conservatives rely more
sex scandal more negatively than an official accused of financial misconduct, whereas liberals will deposit harsher punishments on officials accused of financial malfeasance. In other words, the five basic moral foundations to which all human beings adhere (Graham et al., 2009), and which are directly related to the ideological identities of political liberalism and conservatism (Haidt, 2012), may shape individual evaluations of accused officials. Formally, H7A: Conservatives will evaluate an official accused of a sex scandal more negatively than will liberals.
H7B: Liberals will evaluate an official accused of a financial scandal more negatively than will conservatives.
Liberals and conservatives rely on different ideologically motivated values when making judgments. Conservatives care about fairness, but rely on that value less than liberals. Liberals typically ignore or downplay concerns about bodily or sexual sanctity or degradation. After accounting for the accused’s political party affiliation (Republican or Democrat), an interaction between scandal type and participant ideology is expected to influence evaluations.
Finally, there is an expectation of an interaction between scandal type and a citizen’s level of political knowledge. Political knowledge has been linked to articulating more consistent and nuanced policy opinions (Sturgis & Smith, 2010), increased tolerance for minority political groups (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996), and being able to assign blame for bad policy to the responsible officials (Gomez & Wilson, 2001). Individuals with high levels of political knowledge may be able to comprehend the magnitude of a complex financial scheme and punish officials accused of scandal more harshly than individual who score low in political knowledge.
Conversely, sex scandals are relatively easy-to-follow human dramas, making them comprehensible to individuals at all levels of knowledge. There is an interactive expectation,
harsher punishments on officials accused of financial misbehavior and individuals with low levels of political knowledge provide negative evaluations of those accused of sexual misconduct, H8A: Individuals with high levels of political knowledge will evaluate officials accused of financial scandals more negatively than will individuals who possess low levels of political knowledge; the reverse will be true of sex scandals.
A competing expectation assumes that the magnitude of the consequences associated with financial scandals is understandable at every level of political knowledge. However, knowledge may bias processing of scandal information, such that the more knowledgeable the citizen is, the more harshly they evaluate officials accused of trivial sexual misconduct. This hypothesis is based on the logic that more sophisticated citizens are also more politically engaged and receptive to political gamesmanship inherent in news messages. For instance, Chong and Druckman (2007a; 2007b; see also Druckman, Peterson, & Slothuus, 2013) find evidence that knowledgeable individuals are more susceptible to partisan framing and cues in news messages. This suggests that while high levels of political knowledge may have a number of desirable byproducts, such as increased tolerance for minority groups in society (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996), high levels of knowledge may also bias individuals to think about the game of politics rather than the substance. In a scandal scenario, we would thus expect, H8B: Individuals with high levels of political knowledge will evaluate officials accused of sexual scandals more negatively than will individuals who possess low levels of political knowledge; the reverse will be true of financial scandals.
The world of politics attracts individuals of all stripes, of all creeds and levels of sophistication. It is clear that individuals who are knowledgeable about politics are better able to understand the implications of national events and the inner workings of government, are better able to recognize the scope of their duties as democratic citizens, and are more sophisticated in
knowledgeable citizens punish officials accused of financial scandals more harshly than officials accused of relatively sexual misbehavior. Yet having a vast store of political knowledge is not without its drawbacks. Knowledgeable individuals are more susceptible to biased processing of partisan messages. In a scandal scenario, knowledgeable individuals may therefore exact harsher punishments on relatively trivial sex scandals than will their low-knowledge counterparts.
Given the idea that news media pay differing amounts of attention to financial and sexual scandals, how do patterns of press coverage influence electoral outcomes? Several empirical studies have examined factors that affect a political official’s electoral “survivability” after scandal accusations are made, focusing on the impact of press coverage. For example, Herrick (2000) found that the frequency of Washington Post stories mentioning a U.S. House scandal related negatively to House member being reelected. The more frequently a scandal was mentioned, the higher the probability of a House member’s electoral defeat. Shea (1999) found that the frequency of local news stories about a scandal adversely impacted a congressman’s electoral survivability. Since the public relies on the media to tell them “what to think about” (Cohen, 1963; McCombs, 2004; Mccombs & Shaw, 1972), increased scandal coverage should have deleterious effects on a political official’s post-scandal electoral fortunes, assuming that all scandal coverage acts as negative publicity for the member accused. Formally, H9A: Frequency of scandal coverage will relate positively to losing reelection.
H9B: Frequency of scandal coverage will relate positively to resigning office.
It is also plausible that the type of scandal, financial or sexual in nature, interacts with press coverage. Sexual scandals like that of former Representative Anthony Weiner engender
disgraced congressman to resign (Hernandez, 2011). Similar evidence suggests party leadership asked former representatives Mark Foley (Halloran, 2011), Gary Condit (Standora, 2001), and Eric Massa (Benjamin & McAuliff, 2010) to resign in the wake of a sex scandal. In each case, the ensuing media firestorm resulted in party leadership calling on the representative to resign or retire from office, which they inevitably did rather than distract from their party’s agenda.
Since for-profit media norms and routines presumably oblige the press to pay more attention to sexual scandals than to financial scandals, there is an expectation that sex scandals will also result in higher resignation rates than will financial scandals. Sex scandals may receive such intense press coverage that accused members often have to step aside rather than distract from their party’s policymaking and governing agendas. An interactive relationship between scandal type and frequency of press coverage is thus predicted. Specifically, H10: The effect of press coverage on resignations from office will be greater for officials accused of sexual misconduct than for officials accused of financial misconduct.
Importantly, high rates of electoral defeat stemming from a sex scandal are not hypothesized to emerge from a voting bloc that makes a post-scandal election a referendum on an official’s sexual affairs. Accusations of sex scandal should result in higher rates of resignation because members face intense media scrutiny, and are subsequently pressured by party leadership to resign. The press and party leadership, not voters, decide the fortunes of an official accused of sexual misconduct, whereas financial misconduct is usually decided at the ballot box.
The press controls the “pictures in our heads” (Lippmann, 1997). Issues that are covered frequently in the media become the issues we think about (Cohen, 1963), through the press-topublic transfer of issue importance (McCombs & Shaw, 1972; McCombs, 2004). In this sense,
trust. The press can improve or damage an official’s image, with scandal publicity often threatening to limit the accused’s political capital (Marion, 2010; Schudson, 2004; Thompson, 2000), and degrade the image and policymaking capability of the associated party.
In a democracy, the press also functions as an intermediary political institution, a “Fourth Branch” of government that scrutinizes government activity, including government corruption and scandal (Cook, 1998; 2005; Schudson, 1981; 2011). The press plays a vital role in communicating information about government malfeasance to the public, so that voters have the necessary evidence to forgive and reelect or “vote the bastards out” during the next season. If the press is not “properly calibrated” (Entman, 2012) to the severity of political scandal, however, the result may be an overemphasis on trivial but entertaining sex scandals rather than grave abuses of power for personal financial advancement. Extramarital sexual dalliances like that of Anthony Weiner’s online escapades may dominate the news agenda, while theft, bribery and extortion garner relatively less press attention. In essence, this chapter suggests that patterns of news coverage may make it “safer” for a politician to steal from his own constituents than to “score” sexual favors. The former type of misconduct garners relatively less attention from the national media compared to sexual misconduct that titillates and amuses (Schudson, 2004).
Chapter 2 analyzes over five years of scandal news coded by Pew Research and made available through the News Coverage Index (NCI) database. This chapter investigates the possibility that media give more coverage to sex scandals relative to financial scandals. Scandals involving congressional officials in the Legislative branch are considered. Partisan biases in reporting among cable television news network (CNN and Fox News Channel) are also considered as a factor that may influence variation in frequency of scandal coverage.
evaluations of officials accused of engaging in financial or sexual scandals. Using a 2 (Republican / Democratic) X 2 (financial / sex scandal) experimental design, this chapter isolates the individual impact of party affiliation and scandal type on evaluations of the accused.
Additionally, this chapter considers the effects of participant ideology and knowledge on judgments. Since humans tend to favor members of their social group, it is hypothesized that conservatives will tend to give more negative evaluations of Democrats accused of a scandal.
Chapter 4 provides an additional test of differences in financial and sex scandal coverage over a longer period of time. This chapter uses data aggregated on members of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1996 to 2012, analyzing the effect of media scrutiny on electoral outcomes.
The interactive influence of media attention and scandal type – financial or sexual – on the probability the representative resigns, loses reelection or wins reelection is assessed.