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Re-electing Rascals: Politicians, Sex, and Voters

How do sexually reckless politicians survive politically?

In this post, I’ll try to be less downbeat. I’m going to give an evolutionary angle on political sex scandals from the perspective of the followers, we voters.


Former state governor Mark Sanford was elected to Congress after admitting to an extramarital affair. US Senator David Vitter was re-elected after admitting to a “sin” related to a prostitution ring. President Bill Clinton’s popularity in public opinion polls actually went up after he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” And on and on…

It’s yet to be determined if Anthony Weiner or Bob Filner will join the list of re-embraced political philanderers, but we shouldn’t be shocked if either of them are added to that extensive list of knaves.

Although many discovered political scoundrels resign, retire, or are beaten, some data suggest that two out of three US House incumbents who are involved in any kind of scandal are re-elected if they choose to run. This statistic isn’t specific to sexual misdeeds, but, as noted later, the effect of sex scandals is less than some other types of scandals, so the re-election rate for sex scandals shouldn’t be much different.


Evolutionary theory suggests we humans greatly benefitted from joining groups in the harsh evolutionary past. Establishing and maintaining social relationships made it easier for our ancestors to acquire the resources needed for survival and reproduction: food, shelter, and mates. As a result, humans are particularly sensitive to “cheaters” who act in ways that undermine group relations. Think of how fondly you regard your co-worker who always seems to find a way to avoid doing his share of the work.

Further, a group is more likely to survive intact when it has a leader to organize activities and distribute resources. But the authority a leader has to organize and distribute also puts the leader in position to exploit group resources for personal gain at the expense of the group and its members. Due to this vulnerable position, group members are expected to be particularly sensitive to group violations by leaders. We need to look no further than the ongoing debate about pay inequities between workers and their CEOs.


Generally speaking, scandals of all types have been found to reduce incumbent vote share by about 5%. One interesting finding is that the biggest effect occurs in the election immediately after the scandal, but in future elections the effect almost completely goes away. Wow!

Only a few studies have looked specifically at sex scandals. The most useful of the studies permits a fairly direct assessment of the evolutionary argument and provides nice support for it.

Scott Basinger at the University of Houston did a study looking at the influence of 246 sexual, financial, election, criminal, and political corruption scandals on Congressional elections over the last 30 years. He defined corruption as bribery, conspiracy, obstruction of justice, and influence peddling. In other words, corruption involved politician’s abuse of their office, or, in evolutionary terms, the maldistribution of group resources. The other types of scandals involved non-governmental, non-official, personal behaviors such as extramarital affairs (sex), tax evasion (financial), violations of campaign laws (election), and driving while intoxicated (criminal).

He found that voters had a much more negative response to political corruption, the evolutionary evil, than the personal scandals. More specifically, corruption has the largest effect, driving down the vote share of incumbents by 8%, while sexual, financial, and criminal scandals drove it down by 5%. Although small numbers, the effect is 60% larger for political corruption than sexual and other types of scandals. Election scandals had little to no effect.


An important point to remember is that congressional incumbents in recent times have enjoyed about a 30% advantage in vote margin. So even though the political philanderers pay a cost, it’s often small compared to the electoral advantages they have (e.g., name recognition, money, and campaigning savvy).

Combine these relatively low costs of philandering with the advantages politicians have in acquiring mates because of their elevated social status, and we’re bound to have to endure ongoing reports of the private misdeeds of our public officials.

Well, I don’t think my daughter is going to like this one much better, but she can keep disagreeing with me. I don’t mind at all in this case.

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