The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Do Attractive Politicians Get a ‘Break’ When They are Involved in Scandals?

Abstract

In general, politicians involved in scandals of various natures are punished by voters. Good-looking politicians, on the contrary, are rewarded by voters. Almost fifty years of empirical research has shown that ill-informed voters will use the physical attractiveness of candidates, as well as readily-available information on scandal allegations involving candidates running for office, as a heuristic shortcut to determine their voting behaviour. This article represents the first attempt to link the existing literature on the electoral effects of scandals with the existing literature of the electoral impact of candidate attractiveness. Using data on U.S. House of Representatives elections between 1972 and 2012, we find that candidate attractiveness mitigates the negative electoral effects of involvement in scandal; this implies that attractive politicians do get a “break” when involved in scandals. Of all type of scandals, we also find that candidate attractiveness has the largest moderating role if the incumbent is embroiled in a sex scandal.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    For example, Dallek (2003) revealed a sordid affair between John Kennedy and 19 year-old intern Mimi Alford. A decade later, Alford (2013) published her own autobiography where despicable events that border on sexual violence perpetrated by Kennedy are described in detail. Yet, these revelations have not changed anything: Nixon continues to be remembered as a national embarrassment, while Kennedy is remembered a national hero.

  2. 2.

    We try here to present a very concise and brief account of the two literatures. For a comprehensive overview of the scandals literature see Basinger (2013, 2016), Doherty et al. (2014) and Praino et al. (2013). For a complete synthesis of the attractiveness literature see Milazzo and Mattes (2016) and Stockemer and Praino (2017).

  3. 3.

    In brief, the House Banking scandal broke in 1992 and involved a large number of Members of the U.S. House of Representatives who had written hundreds of checks using their accounts with the House Bank without funds to cover them; the Abscam scandal was an undercover operation run by the FBI starting in 1978 that ultimately convicted a number of American politicians for receiving bribes from FBI agents posing as wealthy Arab businessmen; Duke Cunningham was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives who received millions of dollars in bribes from defence contractors; Jack Abramoff is a lobbyist who received tens of millions of dollars from Native American tribes in exchange for political influence with the complicity of various political figures. For complete descriptions, explanations, and analyses of these scandals, see Gershman (1982); Jacobson and Dimock (1994); Stern (2007); Stone (2006).

  4. 4.

    We follow Basinger et al.’s (2014) lead and use the same four categories in our classification. “Financial Scandals” include instances of corruption, bribery, and other clear financial misconduct. “Political Scandals” include a range of political misconducts, including misuse of office. “Sex Scandals” include extramarital affairs, sexual harassment, solicitation and other misconducts that are sexual in nature. “Other Scandals” is a catch-all category including all types of scandals that are too few to warrant their own separate category and, among other things, include 10 instances of driving while intoxicated, 7 instances of assault and 3 instances of drug use.

  5. 5.

    The Almanac of American Politics has been published continuously since 1972. We have used all editions from 1972 to 2012, but we cite here only the most-cited edition according to Google Scholar, that is, the 1975 edition of the work (Barone et al. 1975).

  6. 6.

    Using student coders might be suboptimal, as students are a rather homogeneous group, whose attractiveness assessments might not be representative of a wider population. Yet, recent research has shown not only that the features that render individuals attractive remain the same regardless of whether coders are young or old, but also that using a more representative sample of coders yields the same attractiveness scores (see Praino et al. 2014).

  7. 7.

    We thank Gary Jacobson for sharing with us his challenger score data (Jacobson, 1981, 1989), Charles Stewart III for letting us use his committee assignment data (Stewart III, 1992), and Keith Poole and Howard Rosenthal, for making their NOMINATE data readily available to all scholars who desire to use it (Poole and Rosenthal 1985, 2001).

  8. 8.

    The dataset and the replication files can be accessed here: https://doi.org/10.7910/DVN/VNWPRV.

  9. 9.

    There are several possible reasons why politicians who decide to retire after a scandal are more attractive than politicians who decide to run again for office. For instance, research has shown that attractive politicians enjoy more media exposure than their less-attractive colleagues (see Lenz and Lawson 2011), and this could hurt them during a scandal. Alternatively, these individuals could be simply deciding to retire and enjoy the benefits that their attractiveness can produce in other fields (see Eagly et al. 1991; Watkins and Johnston 2000). Even more simply, these individuals appear to come from less-safe districts. In fact, while scandal-tainted incumbents had an average electoral margin of victory of 39.5%, these individuals who chose to retire had a much lower margin of 29%. While all these possible explanations are interesting and plausible, they remain conjecture and untested hypotheses until further analysis is conducted. While due to space constraints it is impossible for us to fully explore here these issues, future research should explore them in detail.

  10. 10.

    More in detail, we select one matching case for each case in our treatment group and include it in the control group by excluding from our overall sample all observations that differ in each of the matching variables until only one observation is left. For the few instances where more than one observation remained, we assigned a random number to each remaining observation and used a random number generator to select our matching observation.

  11. 11.

    To further determine whether the coefficient of the interaction term separately and the combined influence between the three terms scandal involvement, attractiveness and the interaction are different from zero, we conducted two Wald Tests. We find that the interaction alone is statistically different from zero (i.e., the chi2 statistic is 4.28, the significance level is .04). We also find that the three coefficients for scandal involvement, attractiveness and the interaction between the two are not simultaneously equal to zero (i.e., the chi2 statistic is 3.34, the significance level is .02), meaning that including these variables creates a significant improvement in the model fit.

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Stockemer, D., Praino, R. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Do Attractive Politicians Get a ‘Break’ When They are Involved in Scandals?. Polit Behav 41, 747–767 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11109-018-9469-1

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Keywords

  • Physical attractiveness
  • Scandals
  • Elections
  • US House of Representatives
  • US congress