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5 Lessons On The Clinton Email Scandal From Political Science

Welcome to the Democratic primary. In one corner: former Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In the other: the media. Clinton wants to be president. The media wants a story — and has one with the revelation that Clinton used private email during her time at Foggy Bottom. So who can judge this matchup, given the media’s stake? Is this a major scandal or a minor kerfuffle?

Let’s go to the world of political science for help. Here are five things to keep in mind:

1. Don’t pay attention to the polls; pay attention to Democratic politicians.

If the email scandal is hurting Clinton’s prospects, you’ll see Democratic Party operators start flirting with other possible 2016 candidates. I emailed with Brandon Rottinghaus of the University of Houston about the effect that scandals have on presidential primaries. He said that in past instances of scandal, there was “a temporary rally effect — where partisans rally to the candidate’s side — but this bump is temporary.” Perhaps more importantly, scandals can hurt a candidate’s “fundraising capability and potential for high profile endorsements.” Rottinghaus went on to note that candidates who overcome scandals “find a way to change the subject or to make the scandal seem inconsequential in the context of larger problems.”

So far, Democratic bigwigs are sticking with Clinton.

2. Clinton’s in less trouble than she would be if voters felt that Democrats were certain to keep the White House in 2016.

Primary voters are more likely to kick their incumbents out in safe districts. Shigeo Hirano of Columbia University and James M. Snyder Jr. of Harvard University controlled for safe vs. competitive districts (as measured by the previous presidential vote) for House primary campaigns from 1978 to 2008. They found that primary voters were more willing to take a chance on a new candidate when they were confident that their party would keep the seat. While incumbents in competitive seats faced more primary challengers when they also faced a scandal, they saw no difference in their win probability because of a scandal.

3. Unless more comes out about this scandal, Clinton is likely to escape any major damage.

This type of scandal is probably not the kind that fires up voters. I emailed David Doherty of Loyola University Chicago about a paper looking at different types of political scandals that he wrote with Conor M. Dowling of the University of Mississippi and Michael G. Miller of Barnard College. Doherty said the Clinton scandal “is, in essence, about a violation of bureaucratic rules.” By the time most persuadable voters start paying attention to the race, “this somewhat-obscure violation of record-keeping rules is very likely to be ‘old news,’ ” Doherty said. “In short, it’s tough to imagine the pool of people who are going to decide the election caring about this 18 months from now.”

4. Clinton’s better off with this scandal coming out now.

The electoral effects of a scandal fade but don’t disappear. Rodrigo Praino, formerly of the University of Connecticut (now at Flinders University), Daniel Stockemer of the University of Ottawa and Vincent G. Moscardelli of the University of Connecticut demonstrated that House members lost an average of 15 percentage points off their general election re-election margin in the immediate aftermath of scandals from 1972 to 2006. That loss dropped to about 5 percentage points two years later and shrunk further after that.

The effect of a scandal on a presidential election is likely far less than this paper found with House elections. Still, if the general election is really close, these emails could move the needle very slightly.

5. Clinton would be smart to play nice with the press.

The media can play a major role in the electoral effects of a scandal. Harvard University’s B.K. Song examined the media’s effect by looking at scandals involving senators from 1970 to 2000. Specifically, Song looked at whether senators did better in their re-election bids in parts of their states that were covered by out-of-state media markets (e.g., a border town in New Hampshire covered by Vermont television) — the logic being that out-of-state media outlets are less scandal-focused. Senators received 3 percentage points more support in places covered by out-of-state media markets in general elections.

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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