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A Sex Scandal Tanked A Presidential Front-Runner In The 1980s. Why Not Today?

It’s spring of the year before the presidential primaries, and an unprecedented scandal involving a clear front-runner in the polls has caused a media firestorm and wall-to-wall coverage.

No, we’re not talking about former President Donald Trump, who was arraigned last week on criminal charges stemming from a hush-money payment he allegedly made related to his 2016 campaign, purportedly to hide an affair with a porn star. In May 1987, former Sen. Gary Hart, the leading contender for the Democratic Party’s 1988 presidential nomination, faced a media “feeding frenzy” over his alleged marital infidelity — a scandal that led Hart to suspend his campaign and ultimately ended his political career. 

Now, let’s be clear: These are not apples-to-apples cases. Although both involved alleged personal misconduct, Trump is facing felony charges under New York state law, while Hart was never accused of breaking the law. And though Hart led the early primary polls, he was not a former president, like Trump. Call it “apples to pears,” perhaps. Still, in each instance, the favorite for a party’s presidential nomination faced an early, high-profile scandal that — on paper, at least — risked serious damage to his campaign and potentially his party’s future electoral prospects. Hart’s polling tumbled just as he suspended his candidacy, and he received little overt support from major figures in his party. Trump, meanwhile, has seen his polling numbers only improve among Republicans, and he’s enjoyed near-unified support from those in his party, including current and potential Republican primary opponents. 

But while the political trajectories for these candidates are diverging dramatically, it’s not due to just circumstantial differences. It’s emblematic of larger changes in American politics over the last three-and-a-half decades: the consolidation of the Republican Party behind Trump, a more polarized media environment and increased partisanship that has made it more likely for parties to rally around their leaders in the face of scandal.

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Rewind to early 1987, when Hart looked like a good bet to win the 1988 Democratic nomination after his unexpectedly strong performance in the 1984 Democratic primary. Hart wouldn’t go unopposed in 1988, but once New York Gov. Mario Cuomo announced he wouldn’t run in February 1987, most of Hart’s primary opponents didn’t appear especially threatening — some dubbed the Democratic field “Gary Hart and the Seven Dwarfs.” By April, Hart was clearing 40 percent in national polls and held double-digit leads in Iowa and New Hampshire surveys.

As the front-runner, Hart faced questions about his life before politics and rumors of infidelity. In late April, the Miami Herald got a tip that Hart was seeing a woman who was not his wife. Up until then, politicians’ private lives had mostly been off-limits, but that was changing due to increased media scrutiny of leaders after Watergate and greater focus on politicians’ “character.” On May 3, the Herald published news of Hart’s liaison, and Hart faced an avalanche of coverage about his personal life.

Gary Hart's campaign for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination was rocked by allegations of infidelity.

National Enquirer / Dave Buresh / The Denver Post via Getty Images

Amid the media frenzy, Hart received little open support from his opponents or other major figures in the Democratic Party. The “Seven Dwarfs” mostly avoided comment, although Rep. Dick Gephardt noted that “scrutiny comes with the territory” of being a candidate. Lane Kirkland, then the president of the AFL-CIO, only offered that he was sure Hart and his campaign “would druther it hadn’t happened.” Meanwhile, polls taken in the immediate aftermath found his support had slipped: Although Hart still led nationally, he’d fallen into the low 30s, and he lost his edge in New Hampshire. Following a fateful press conference in which Hart struggled to respond to the question “Have you ever committed adultery?” he announced on May 8 that he was suspending his campaign.

By comparison, major figures in the Republican Party have almost uniformly rallied around Trump since the news of the indictment (even though some would likely prefer him to not be the party’s 2024 standard bearer). Almost every one of Trump’s declared or potential GOP primary opponents echoed Trump’s claims that the case was politically motivated. And party leaders like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Republican National Committee Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel stuck to similar themes in their statements. Meanwhile, conservative media, pundits and commentators have also defended Trump to their viewers and readers, helping keep them in the former president’s corner.

Beyond leadership complaints about weaponizing the judicial system for political reasons, a motivating factor in the right’s defense of Trump may be the belief that he retains a great deal of support among the party base. That’s borne out in the polls. While Trump had already been gaining ground in national primary polls, surveys conducted right after the indictment news broke found him improving over pre-indictment polling. In multicandidate polls, Trump is now polling around 50 percent, while his closest opponent — Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who has yet to declare his candidacy — is at around 25 percent.

Trump’s enduring strength stems in part from his standing as a former president and in part from political polarization. It’s true that, in 2016, some Republicans blanched at supporting Trump, most notably after audio leaked in October 2016 in which Trump made lewd remarks about women. But we’re far removed from that time: Trump went on to win that election, aided by the strong force of partisanship that overrode “character” concerns to keep Republicans in line (helped out by GOP distaste for Hillary Clinton as the alternative). The Republican Party remains Trump’s party, as evidenced by his resilient popularity among Republicans through multiple previous scandals and the fact that around three-quarters of respondents in primary polls support either Trump or DeSantis, who is offering Trump-style politics with a different face.

Unlike Trump, Hart got himself caught up in a new breed of scandal without having as much partisan loyalty available to shore up his position. Since he never occupied the White House, Hart didn’t have a chance to become as central a figure in the Democratic Party as Trump has become for Republicans. Hart also didn’t have partisan media figures ready to defend his candidacy the way Trump does today. Yet Hart lacked support that might have otherwise been available to him, as he had alienated notable figures in his party. He had a tense relationship with labor unions, arguably the most influential constituency in the Democratic Party at that time, and despite having served two terms in the U.S. Senate, he lacked early endorsements from most of his congressional brethren. 

Hart’s paucity of support was reconfirmed when he surprisingly reentered the primary in December 1987. Although the cluttered field of candidates had led many Democrats to hold off on endorsing, Hart failed to attract much backing. While he initially got a handful of decent polls, his renewed candidacy received mostly incredulous responses from his primary rivals, party leaders and the media, and he went out with a whisper, barely winning any votes in Iowa or New Hampshire.

Separated by 36 years, the Hart and Trump scandals both originated with allegations concerning personal choices. But the fallout from these imbroglios tell us a lot about how politics and media have changed. The scandals themselves may be apples to pears, but their circumstances are a veritable fruit salad — except one where the red fruits are on one side and the blue fruits are on the other.

Geoffrey Skelley is a senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.


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