Expert Commentary

More news coverage, more money: How donors respond to sex scandals among Congress members

Federal legislators embroiled in a financial or sex scandal receive much more money from donors and generally win re-election — if the scandal garners national media attention, research finds.

News teams set up before press conference in front of Capitol Hill

Federal legislators embroiled in a financial or sex scandal are rewarded with money from donors and generally win re-election — if the scandal draws national media attention, according to research published recently in Political Research Quarterly.

The study finds that members of the U.S. House of Representatives who were involved in sex scandals covered by The New York Times between 1980 and 2010 raised 159% more money for their re-election campaigns than similar legislators not tainted by scandal.

The study, from researchers at UCLA and Barnard College, also finds that over time, voters have become less punitive and donors have become more supportive of federal legislators with careers marred by scandal.

Lead author Brian T. Hamel told Journalist’s Resource that this could be “a function of the ‘nationalization’ of American elections.” Voters and donors want to help the political party with which they are affiliated gain power.

“Prior to 1994, the Democratic majority in the U.S. House was secure,” Hamel explained over email. “The Republicans never really had a chance to win the U.S. House, and so prior to 1994, voters are more willing to punish bad behavior because the consequences of doing so are minimal. Post-1994, both parties see it as possible to win control of the chamber, and so voting out a scandalous co-partisan could be consequential for gaining or keeping chamber control. Partisanship simply becomes more important than the behavior of one particular legislator. Likewise, donors — already ideological and strategically-motivated actors — contribute even more post-1994, relative to pre-1994, as they become even more motivated to protect and promote their own party.”

Hamel and his co-author, Michael G. Miller, wanted to better understand how different types of scandal shape elections. They examined election results for members of the U.S. House of Representatives who sought re-election, comparing vote tallies and campaign donations for those who were and those who were not involved in some sort of scandal. Hamel and Miller also looked at how national newspaper coverage of the scandal influenced the election.

For the study, “How Voters Punish and Donors Protect Legislators Embroiled in Scandal,” the researchers analyzed data on U.S. House scandals from 1980 to 2010. Scandals fell into four categories: financial, sex, political and other.

While financial scandals involved accusations of bribery, tax evasion or another use of public funds for personal gain, political scandals were linked to professional misconduct, including misusing House resources. Sex scandals involved behaviors such as sexual harassment, an extramarital affair or soliciting sex. Scandals that fell into the “other” category often centered on criminal allegations related to such things as using drugs or driving under the influence.

The authors consider a scandal to be “nationally visible” if The New York Times wrote about it at least once within a month of the scandal becoming public knowledge. “We find that the damaging character of a scandal is heavily dependent on the extent to which it is discussed in the national media,” they write.

Hamel and Miller excluded legislators who resigned or were serving their first term in office when the scandal broke as well as all legislators — regardless of whether or not they were involved in a scandal — who were defeated in the primary election. The final research sample includes 103 House members who sought re-election amid or following a scandal.

Here are some of the study’s other key takeaways:

  • House members embroiled in scandals that The New York Times wrote about raised almost 60% more money than did House members who were not. House members involved in financial scandals the Times covered collected 59% more from their donors. “The most dramatic effects are found among the most visible scandals,” Hamel and Miller write.
  • Most scandals — nearly 63% — were financial. More than 16% were sex scandals, the second most common type of scandal among House members seeking re-election during the study period.
  • Of the four types of scandal, The New York Times was most likely to cover sex scandals and those that fell into the “other” category. The newspaper covered almost 56% of all scandals the researchers identified. However, it covered more than 64% of sex and “other” scandals.
  • House members involved in scandals received about 4 percentage points fewer votes compared with similar House members whose careers were not marked by scandal. While scandal-tainted legislators were 11 percentage points less likely to win than legislators not involved in a scandal, the vast majority of scandalized members of Congress won their bids for re-election. “This is likely in part due to the historically strong incumbency advantage in U.S. congressional elections,” Hamel explained via email.


If you’re looking for more elections-related research, check out our write-ups on door-to-door canvassing, how health affects voter turnout and how targeted internet ads may improve millennial voter turnout. Also, our tip sheet featuring Tammy Patrick, once a federal compliance officer for the Maricopa County Elections Department in Arizona, outlines eight tips to help journalists improve their coverage of U.S. elections.

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