Sabato's Crystal Ball

Why This Scandal Won’t Hurt Hillary

History shows us that presidential candidates tend to weather controversy better than senators and congressmen

Larry J. Sabato March 26th, 2015

U.Va. Center for Politics Director Larry J. Sabato is contributing a regular column to Politico Magazine. This week, he explores how scandals haven’t often been top-tier issues in presidential general elections, something to keep in mind in light of the recent focus on Hillary Clinton’s e-mails. A version of this article originally appeared in Politico Magazine on March 22, 2015.

The Editors

Admit it: You love a juicy scandal. We claim to be high-minded and policy-oriented, but our noses are buried in the accounts of the latest political calamity — and we read those stories before anything else.

The Hillary Clinton e-mail controversy is just the latest entrée in a decades-long, calorie-rich menu provided by the former first lady and her husband. But will it make a difference in 2016?

Scandal allegations are almost always an enormously time-consuming distraction and they make it virtually impossible to communicate a positive message during the feeding frenzy. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the damage will be long-lasting. In this respect, presidential campaigns can be very different than those for lower levels.

At those lower levels of politics — House and Senate races, for example — there is considerable evidence that a scandal can wreak havoc and even defeat normally favored incumbents. A 2013 study in Social Science Quarterly, by Rodrigo Praino and colleagues, looks at races involving incumbents who were investigated by the U.S. House Ethics Committee. The consequences were quite severe in the 88 cases that occurred between 1972 and 2006:

“On average, incumbents’ election margins drop almost 12 percentage points below their pre-investigation levels once an investigation is formally opened…Furthermore, the scandal-plagued incumbents who survive [to be reelected] do not recover immediately, regaining only about 5 percentage points of their lost margins in the subsequent election. It is not until the second post-scandal reelection bid that the average scandal-plagued incumbent returns to his or her pre-scandal margins.”

A second recent investigation of post-Watergate House races by Scott Basinger in Political Research Quarterly covered scandalized incumbents of all types (whether investigated by the Ethics Committee or not). His conclusions were also grim for many members of Congress: More than 40% of the members in question failed to “survive” a scandal, either retiring or losing an election (primary or general), and the incumbents who did make it to November again saw, on average, a 5% decrease in their share of the general election vote. A good example of a scandal-tarred incumbent who ran for re-election but lost is former California Rep. Gary Condit (D); after the disappearance of former intern Chandra Levy, Condit failed to prevail in a 2002 primary. More recently, Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R) performed slightly worse in his 2012 re-election after news broke of the pro-life doctor having affairs with multiple patients and urging one of them to get an abortion. The full effect of the scandal came to bear in the 2014 primary, although the damaged DesJarlais won renomination by 38 votes and remains in Congress.

Nevertheless, there is good reason to think that scandal has a much less pronounced effect at the presidential level. For one thing, most elections for the White House revolve around macro-issues such as the economy and war, and voters instinctively realize that personal peccadilloes fade in importance. For another, most top-tier contenders are reasonably well known and have been vetted to some degree by the press and opponents in prior elections. When voters already have a clearly formed view of a candidate and his or her strengths and weaknesses, it naturally becomes more difficult to alter impressions.

For no one is this more true than Hillary Clinton, who has been in the national spotlight, center stage, for 23 years. HuffPost Pollster data show over 90% of the public has already formed an opinion of Clinton, the most of any potential 2016 candidate. Other than the very youngest voters, is there really anyone left who doesn’t have a mostly fixed view of her?

You can argue that, to a lesser degree, the same is true for Jeb Bush. Americans outside of Florida may not know Jeb well, but they are very familiar with the Bush family. While Jeb doesn’t like it and is already struggling against it, voters attribute many of his family’s traits to him.

Jeb is insisting he’s his own man, yet it will be nearly impossible to insulate him from the deep recessions and Middle East wars of his father and brother. With the good that derives directly from being a Bush (instant name recognition, establishment support, tons of campaign cash) comes the unavoidable bad of the Iraq War, the response to Hurricane Katrina, and economic near-collapse.

Think of it this way: Both Clinton and Bush enter the campaign cycle with a million pixel image in the voters’ minds. If you add a couple thousand new pixels to the picture, the overall image doesn’t change much. A garden-variety scandal — and maybe an entire campaign full of them — won’t transform the projection on the screen.

History offers a bit of proof. Even when scandals were prominent in the headlines or recent memory, they have only rarely had a critical impact on the selection of a president. If you examine the 29 presidential elections since 1900 to look for the dominant deciding factor(s), you’ll find that scandal has seldom played any conclusive role. The traditional, overriding voter concerns about the economy and war adequately explain the bulk of election outcomes.

In just seven of 29 White House contests has scandal been significant enough to constitute part of the analysis — and in several cases the candidate most touched by scandal won anyway.

In 1924, when the deep corruption of President Harding’s term was fully coming to light after his death in August 1923, Harding’s successor Calvin Coolidge seemingly paid no price in his landslide election to a full term. Granted, Coolidge was not involved in Teapot Dome or any of the Harding era’s hanky-panky, yet it might have been rational for voters to punish the Republican nominee on account of party misconduct. (It certainly helped Coolidge that Democrats were also terribly divided — after all, it took them 103 ballots to decide on a compromise nominee at their convention.)

The next time a form of scandal was repeatedly highlighted on the campaign trail took place seven presidential elections later, when Dwight Eisenhower captured the White House. One of the 1952 GOP slogans was “Communism, Korea, and Corruption,” references to alleged deficiencies in the administration of President Harry Truman. This was a classic foreign policy election, primarily about the unpopular Korean War, which Ike pledged to end by going to Korea personally. The spread of communism played a secondary role, with the debate about “who lost China?” and the Soviet Union’s acquisition of the atomic bomb part of the GOP’s indictment of the Democrats.

But corruption was a lesser matter; even the Eisenhower-Nixon ticket didn’t dwell upon it in the fall, possibly because of vice presidential nominee Richard Nixon’s so-called “secret fund” for expenses, which begat his famous televised “Checkers speech” in September. While there were unquestionably examples of corruption and waste in a Democratic regime 20 years old, greed never touched Truman himself — so honest he left the presidency almost a pauper. (The Trumans are a true-to-life example of a first couple who left the White House “dead broke.”)

By contrast, in 1976 voters appeared to exact a price for the Watergate mega-scandal from President Gerald Ford. While Ford was as uninvolved in Watergate as Coolidge had been in Teapot Dome, Ford was held accountable for the pardon he issued to Nixon a month after taking his predecessor’s place in 1974. Still, the shaky economy was likely a more potent reason for Ford’s two-point loss to Jimmy Carter.

Vice President George H.W. Bush was luckier in 1988. At one point, President Reagan’s Iran-Contra scandal brought Reagan’s job approval crashing down and threatened to turn the ’88 election decisively toward the Democrats. However, the scandal had broken in November 1986, plenty of time for it to have run its course before Bush faced the voters two years later. A Democratic campaign based in part on Iran-Contra fell flat, and Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in a rout.

Bill Clinton can also testify to scandal’s inability to determine election outcomes. In 1992, he survived revelations about his long affair with Gennifer Flowers as well as charges of Vietnam War draft evasion to win handily. In 1996, Clinton triumphed again despite the churning of Whitewater as well as charges of extensive womanizing from Arkansas state troopers who had guarded him during his dozen years as the Razorback State’s governor. Then in the second term came Monica Lewinsky and impeachment — which redounded to Clinton’s advantage and, along with the long economic boom, helped Vice President Al Gore to secure a popular-vote advantage of 539,000 votes in 2000. Gore would probably have won the Electoral College, too, had he better utilized Clinton on the campaign trail in several swing states Gore ultimately lost (including Florida, of course).

Oddly, it was the other party’s candidate who suffered more from a scandal in 2000. The week before the election, it was revealed (via some Democratic operatives) that George W. Bush had been arrested for drunk driving in 1976, an embarrassment he had concealed even from some members of his own family. Having campaigned on a pledge to “restore honor and dignity to the Oval Office,” Bush was caught in hypocrisy just when undecided voters were making their decisions. Strategists in Bush’s camp insist to this day that the incident cost Bush the popular vote by discouraging a sizable group of evangelicals from showing up at the polls. While Bush received about four out of five of the ballots of white evangelicals, turnout was lower than the campaign expected in some conservative Christian strongholds.

So what does this tell us about Hillary’s emails and the scrapes her Republican opponents are going to have while traveling 2016’s scandal road? First, there is perhaps less to worry about than the distraught handwringing by pundits and activists suggests. And second, if a candidate is going to detour to the scandal trail, it’s far better to take the trip early in the election cycle. Commentators and partisans from the other camp will always remember and never forgive, but many voters are inclined to move on from “old news.”

That said, when the Clintons are involved, “new news” on the scandal front is always a possibility.

The Political and Demographic Challenges of the 2016 Presidential Election

Alfred J. Tuchfarber, Guest Columnist March 26th, 2015

It is quite interesting to speculate about the 2016 presidential nomination battles and especially potential general election winners and losers. But, it might be best for all of us to keep our powder dry. Current conventional wisdom has it that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and any of a gaggle of contenders will be the choice of the Republicans.

Perhaps correct, perhaps not.

Transport yourself back to this point in the 2008 campaign, that is, to early 2007. Clinton was the putative “lock” for the Democratic nomination and Rudy Giuliani was the odds-on favorite for the Republicans. I don’t recall having the option to vote for either on Nov. 4, 2008.

For that reason, this analysis does not focus on who will get the nominations or even who will win the general election but rather focuses on what challenges both parties will face in the general election battle.

We hear theories that the Republicans cannot win unless they nominate a transformational candidate who broadens the party’s coalition. But, we also hear theories that the way for the Republicans to win is to get out the “hidden” conservative/Tea Party majority.

About the Democrats we hear that Clinton is a lock for the nomination and presidency and just needs to get on with it but also that she has too much baggage, her time has passed, and that new faces are needed.

We’ll see after the voters speak.

But, what we can do now is identify facts, forces, and factors that create both risks and opportunities for the parties in 2016.

What are these facts, forces, and factors?

The best way to answer this question is to break it down into three components:

1. Challenges, risks, and opportunities that both major parties face;
2. Challenges for the Republicans; and
3. Challenges for the Democrats.

Bipartisan challenges

The challenges facing both parties in 2016 are legion, so let’s focus on a few major ones:

1. To re-state the obvious, neither party yet has a nominee. The Democrats have a formidable frontrunner who has great strengths but also weaknesses and heavy baggage. If she falters other well-known politicians may enter the fray. The Republicans have a cavalry charge with more than a dozen candidates who could capture the nomination. The Crystal Ball’s approach of recognizing both the strengths and weaknesses of all the candidates is on target. History shows that the importance of the candidates themselves lays in the images and policy positions they will present to the voters. These images and issue positions can easily swing millions of votes toward one candidate or the other.

2. No one knows what crisis Mr. Putin, Mr. Xi, the Ayatollahs, or anyone else will send our way between now and Nov. 8, 2016. The world is a dangerous place that makes life difficult for presidents and presidential candidates.

3. No one knows if another recession, worldwide credit crisis, or other catastrophe will befall us between now and Election Day. Recall that John McCain held a slight lead in the polls right before the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid-September 2008. He was essentially unelectable after that crisis hit.

4. As Alan Abramowitz discussed in January, the 2016 election handicaps as being very close, unless President Obama’s approval rating moves outside the low 40s to low 50s range.

5. The basic partisanship of likely voters in the US is close to parity, and there is no question that partisanship is the best predictor of vote choice. In recent presidential years, the Democrats have had a small advantage that often disappears in off-year elections. Because of the uncertainties noted above we don’t know which way partisan sentiment and turnout will move by November 2016. What we do know is that the electorate is always changing.

Republican challenges

Analysts are correct in pointing out the major demographic challenges facing the Republicans, including:

1. The Hispanic percentage of total turnout has gone from 7% in 2000 to 10% in 2012 and is almost certain to continue to increase.

2. The Hispanic vote has gone from an average of 58%-40% Democratic in the years of George W. Bush to 69%-29% in the Obama years. No one can say for sure where it will fall in 2016, but it is highly likely that it will stay strongly Democratic.

3. The Asian/Native American/Mixed Race “Other” vote has increased from 3% in 2000-04 to 5% in 2012. This is very likely to be another growing problem for the Republicans.

4. The Other vote was 67%-30% Democratic in 2012 and is very unlikely to go to parity in the 2016 presidential election. [Note: This vote did split evenly in the 2014 congressional elections.]

5. Non-Hispanic white turnout has gone from 81% of the total vote in 2000 to 72% in 2012, costing the Republicans dearly as the white voter group is where they get the vast majority of their votes.

Democratic challenges

The Democrats also face difficult demographic and political challenges:

1. Only rarely do American voters keep the same party in control of the White House for more than eight years in a row. Since the Korean War it has happened only once, when George H.W. Bush succeeded the very popular Ronald Reagan.

2. A strong argument can be made that the 2008 and 2012 election voting patterns had an “Obama Effect” embedded within them. Although the black percentage of the US population has been stable at about 12%, the black percentage of turnout increased from 10% in 2000 to 13% in 2008 and 2012. It is likely to recede closer to its previous level for the 2016 election as Obama will no longer be on the ballot. In the off-year elections in 2010 and 2014, when President Obama was not on the ballot, it averaged 11%.

3. Similarly, the average black vote in 2008 and 2012 favored Democrats 94% to 4%. This contrasts to a pre-Obama average of 89%-9%. This also is likely an Obama Effect and is likely to regress toward its previous level.

4. The labor-union household vote has been little remarked upon by pundits but it is a crucial Democratic constituency. Voters from these households voted 59% Democratic to 39% Republican before and during the Obama years. However, this group’s percentage of total turnout has fallen sharply from 26% in 2000 to 18% in 2012. This mirrors the nationwide decline in union membership, which shows no sign of abating. And, this eight percentage point decline is essentially the same size as the nine-point drop in white turnout.

5. President Obama excited voters under the age of 30, brought them to the polls, and got a large percentage of their vote in his two presidential elections. This may or may not persist and depends in large part on the appeal of the Democratic nominee next year, though nonwhites make up a large portion of this age cohort.

6. From 2000 to 2012, the votes of those 65 and older have gone from favoring the Democratic candidate 51%-47% to preferring the Republican 54%-44% in steady steps, a gain of seven points for the Republicans and a net swing of 14 points. As this voter group is overwhelmingly white and is projected to grow rapidly, this change will be an ongoing challenge for the Democrats.


So, who wins in 2016? It is impossible to say because of the factors, forces, and facts noted here and dozens more which others can and will add. The electorate is changing as it does during every decade, we do not have nominees yet, and foreign policy or domestic disasters could and probably will befall us.

Stay tuned. The ride will be both entertaining and uncertain for us political junkies.

Dr. Alfred J. Tuchfarber, Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Cincinnati, is the founder of UC’s Ohio Poll.

Maneuvers in 2016 Senate Races Necessitate One Ratings Change…in the House

Florida and Indiana Senate contests get shaken up

Geoffrey Skelley March 26th, 2015

Early this week, developments in Florida and Indiana caused a stir. First, news broke early Monday morning that Rep. Patrick Murphy (D, FL-18) will run for the Sunshine State’s Senate seat currently held by Sen. Marco Rubio (R), who is exploring a presidential run. Then, on Tuesday, Sen. Dan Coats (R-IN) announced that he would not seek reelection in 2016, creating an open seat in Indiana. While neither headline caused the Crystal Ball to make a Senate ratings change, Murphy’s decision did necessitate a reappraisal of his House district.

The Sunshine State’s simmering Democrats

In Florida, Rubio has repeatedly said that he will not run for both the presidency and the Senate in 2016, and Murphy’s entry into the Senate race may reflect the conventional wisdom that Rubio appears more likely to launch a presidential run than to seek another term in the Senate.

Backed by many establishment Democrats, Murphy is the first Democrat to declare, but he may not be the last. Moreover, it appears Democrats are not entirely unified behind him. In a radio interview on Sunday just before Murphy’s announcement, Democratic National Committee Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz highlighted a number of Democratic mayors from around the state as good statewide possibilities, raising some eyebrows. In addition, liberal Rep. Alan Grayson (D, FL-9) is considering a run, a prospect that fills traditional Democratic leaders with dread. Grayson will have no hesitation in running a highly negative campaign against Murphy, he is wealthy enough not to have to depend on the usual party donors, and he has a large progressive donor base (though also some familial troubles). Should Grayson run against the more centrist Murphy, it could set the stage for a divisive primary in one of the most competitive and politically expensive states in the country.

Should Rubio solely pursue a presidential run, there are a host of Republicans looking at the possibility of entering the Senate contest, including Lt. Gov. Carlos Lopez-Cantera, state Attorney General Pam Bondi, state Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater, and a number of House members (the GOP holds a 17-10 advantage in the House delegation). The Republican bench in Florida is as deep as the Democratic one is shallow.

If Rubio bails on his Senate seat, the Florida race becomes a Toss-up, and a more difficult hold for Republicans. Still, there remains the possibility that Rubio will decide to run for reelection, in which case he would be a small favorite. For the time being, the Crystal Ball will stick with its Leans Republican rating in the land of oranges and sunshine while we wait for the smoke to clear.

As for Murphy’s House seat, his Senate candidacy opens up the swingy FL-18 to new blood. Although Murphy cruised to reelection even in the GOP-friendly 2014 cycle, Mitt Romney carried this district 52-48% in 2012 (while Murphy was defeating then-GOP Rep. Allen West). That means Republicans will make this a top takeover priority, especially considering that the GOP’s large majority in the House leaves it with fewer obvious additional targets. Both parties have a fair number of potential candidates looking to run in the competitive seat, and with Murphy seeking a bigger prize, FL-18 moves from Likely Democratic to Toss-up.

Table 1: Crystal Ball ratings changes

Many Republicans are eyeing Indiana’s Senate seat

Given the Hoosier State’s conservative lean, Coats’ retirement creates a rare opportunity for Indiana’s many GOP officeholders. Seven of Indiana’s nine House seats are held by Republicans, and practically all of them are being mentioned as potential candidates in the Senate contest. Prominent is Rep. Marlin Stutzman (R, IN-3), who finished second to Coats in the Republican primary in 2010 while he was a state senator; later that same year, Stutzman won a special caucus to replace Rep. Mark Souder (R) on the ballot when Souder resigned because of a sex scandal. Now a House member, Stutzman is clearly interested in another Senate run. Beyond the GOP House delegation, news broke on Wednesday afternoon that Eric Holcomb, Coats’ chief of staff and a former chair of the state party, will announce his Senate candidacy on Thursday, March 26. Coats apparently encouraged Holcomb to look into running, and Holcomb took a leave of absence from his post to explore his options; now he will be the first declared candidate in the race. As for Hoosier Republicans outside the Beltway, state House Speaker Brian Bosma is getting some attention as a possible candidate. Lastly, showing great regard for due diligence, Politico’s Kyle Cheney confirmed that 82 year-old former Sen. Richard Lugar (R) will not be seeking a return to the Senate.

Immediately following Coats’ retirement announcement, Democrats floated the name of former Gov. and Sen. Evan Bayh (D), and with good reason: He has about $10 million unspent in his federal war chest, almost enough to finance an entire campaign. However, an adviser said Bayh “is not a candidate,” and while Bayh still can’t totally be ruled out because national and state Democrats will come begging, he seems unlikely to run.

There’s a short list of other Democratic possibilities, led by ex-Rep. Baron Hill (D). The former House member has been looking at the concurrent gubernatorial contest, but with Gov. Mike Pence (R) appearing less likely to throw his hat in the presidential ring, Hill’s best option may be a Senate bid.

Democrats showed in 2012 that they could win a Senate race in Indiana, even with a presidential race going on: While Mitt Romney carried the state by 10 points, now-Sen. Joe Donnelly (D) defeated Richard Mourdock (R) by about six points. However, Donnelly’s victory was mainly due to Mourdock’s foot-in-mouth troubles, and some Republicans considering the 2016 Senate race may wait to try their luck against Donnelly in 2018. In a stunning aberrational result, President Obama narrowly carried the state in 2008, and prospective 2016 nominee Hillary Clinton may well try for an upset here — but Democrats acknowledge Indiana will be tough to win again.

Overall, then, Republican chances of holding onto the Indiana seat are good. At the same time, Mourdock’s self-destruction is a warning sign for the GOP, and a divisive 2016 Republican Senate primary could produce another unacceptable, hard-edged candidate. For now, however, mainly because of the state’s partisan tilt and the wealth of competitive GOP officeholders, we are keeping the rating for this race at Likely Republican.

This seat has an interesting history: Coats was originally appointed to it in 1989 after Sen. Dan Quayle (R) became Vice President Quayle. Coats won the special election to serve out the rest of Quayle’s term in 1990 (beating Baron Hill) and then grabbed a full term in 1992. Coats decided against running for reelection in 1998, creating an open seat that was easily won by Bayh. After winning reelection in 2004, Bayh opted to retire during the 2010 cycle, opening the door for a return by Coats to the same seat he had previously held. The revolving door is spinning again, though it is highly questionable whether Bayh can be induced to step in again.