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Election Update: Here’s How We Decide Who’s Involved In A Scandal

Welcome to our Election Update for Wednesday, Oct. 3!

As of 11:30 a.m. on Wednesday, the Classic version of our forecast model gave Democrats a 7 in 9 chance (77 percent) of winning the House and Republicans a 5 in 7 chance (72 percent) of holding the Senate. Those are some of the best numbers Republicans have gotten in weeks. The forecast has been a bit more volatile lately, but don’t read too much into it — there was a drought of generic-ballot polls last week, so the model was extra sensitive to the new generic-ballot polls added this week.

One race whose outlook changed significantly, though, didn’t change because of generic-ballot polling, but because of scandal: the California 39th Congressional District. Democrat Gil Cisneros pulled into a virtual dead heat with Republican Young Kim after Melissa Fazli recanted her accusation of sexual harassment against Cisneros, which prompted us to remove the scandal penalty our model had been applying to Cisneros’s chances. The scandal variable is new in our forecasts this year, and we’ve fielded a handful of reader questions about how it’s applied, so we figured we’d bring some transparency to the matter in an Election Update.

FiveThirtyEight Senate forecast update for Oct. 3, 2018

It can be surprisingly difficult to agree on what is and is not a scandal. But we wanted to take as much personal judgment as possible out of the equation, so we settled on the following definition: A scandal is a credible accusation of wrongdoing according to some legal or ethical standard. In other words, we’re talking about breaking the law or committing a widely agreed-upon moral transgression. (We know that’s a bit ambiguous, but not every scandalous misdeed is against the law — adultery, for example.) What’s more, under our scandal definition, a candidate doesn’t need to be charged with or convicted of a crime; an allegation is enough to affect public opinion. In fairness, it’s possible for a candidate to be exonerated and shed the scandal tag completely — but the bar for that is high. If the allegations can’t be proved because there’s insufficient evidence, that’s not enough to clear a candidate of the scandal tag; the allegations must be demonstrated to be false or be rescinded. (Think of the difference between a prosecutor dropping charges versus a defendant being found not guilty.)1 Of course, even if a scandal has been dismissed, the lingering fallout can continue to drag a candidate down in ways that show up in other areas of our forecast, such as polling or fundraising numbers.

In races where a candidate is involved in a scandal, we apply a scandal penalty as part of our “fundamentals” calculation. For new scandals — by which we mean scandals that became public knowledge since the seat was last contested — the penalty typically averages around 8 percentage points, based on our research into the effects of scandals on past congressional elections.2 Our research has also found, however, that the effects of scandals fade quickly and that they have only a marginal effect on a candidate’s chances if the candidate has won an election in the time since news of the scandal broke. Thus, for scandals that became public knowledge prior to the current election cycle, the scandal penalty is discounted. Specifically, it’s discounted by a factor of 1/(n+1) where n is the number of years since the scandal became public knowledge. For example, a scandal that was disclosed in 2010, eight years ago, will receive only 1/9th of the penalty3 that a new scandal would get.

Note that not every scandal that has been in the public eye for some time is an “old” scandal — it can still be considered “new” if the seat has not been contested in that time. For instance, the corruption scandal surrounding New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, which first became public knowledge in 2013, is considered “new” because his Senate seat was last contested in 2012. By contrast, even though Montana Rep. Greg Gianforte body-slammed a reporter just last year, that is not considered a new scandal because a special election was held after the incident. (Gianforte won.) A few candidates have more than one scandal, in which case the scandal penalty is dated from whenever the most recent scandal broke. More rarely, as a scandal develops, it brings out news of a substantially more serious charge than the one that was made in the original allegation (to take a hypothetical example, a candidate who was originally accused of verbal sexual harassment might later be accused of sexual assault). But it takes a lot for the clock to be reset; additional reporting or the revelation of new facts about the scandal does not a new scandal make.

Also to be clear, the scandal tag applies to our “fundamentals” calculation only and does not apply a penalty to the candidate’s polling numbers. In races where there are a lot of polls, our models eventually default to being almost entirely polling-driven. If the scandal has considerably more or considerably less impact than the typical scandal, the polls (and eventually, of course, the election results) are the best way to judge that.

Here’s a complete4 list of every candidate on the 2018 ballot to whom the scandal penalty applies.

The 35 candidates our forecasts penalize for a scandal

Candidates in 2018 races for the U.S. House, U.S. Senate and governorships who have been involved in scandals, by year the scandal developed and whether it happened in the current election cycle

Candidate Race Year new?
Rod Blum Iowa 1st 2018
Brandon Brown South Carolina 4th 2018
Randy Bryce Wisconsin 1st 2018
Tony Cárdenas California 29th 2018
Steve Foster Georgia 14th 2018
Jim Jordan Ohio 4th 2018
Kris Kobach Kansas (Gov.) 2018
Adam Laxalt Nevada (Gov.) 2018
Marty Nothstein Pennsylvania 7th 2018
Archie Parnell South Carolina 5th 2018
Bill Schuette Michigan (Gov.) 2018
Scott Taylor Virginia 2nd 2018
Steve Von Loor North Carolina 4th 2018
Chris Collins New York 27th 2017
Greg Gianforte Montana at large 2017*
Duncan Hunter California 50th 2017
Omar Navarro California 43rd 2017
Dana Rohrabacher California 48th 2017
Antonio Sabato California 26th 2017
David Schweikert Arizona 6th 2017
Bobby Scott Virginia 3rd 2017
James Comer Kentucky 1st 2015
Henry McMaster South Carolina (Gov.) 2015
Mark Meadows North Carolina 11th 2015
Allan Fung Rhode Island (Gov.) 2014
Bob Menendez New Jersey (Sen.) 2013
Scott DesJarlais Tennessee 4th 2012
Alcee Hastings Florida 20th 2011
Gavin Newsom California (Gov.) 2007
David Scott Georgia 13th 2007
Don Young Alaska at large 2007
Beto O’Rourke Texas (Senate) 2005
Ken Calvert California 42nd 1994
Sherrod Brown Ohio (Senate) 1989
Tom Carper Delaware (Senate) 1982

* Although Gianforte’s scandal developed in 2017, which is normally part of the 2018 election cycle, it happened before the last election for his seat — a special election held on May 25, 2017.

Source: News reports

It’s important to note that we limited the scandal ruling to instances where a candidate was accused of crossing a clear line, like breaking a law or breaking his or her marriage vows. That leaves out a number of things I would call “controversies,” like committing a gaffe or saying something offensive. That means it’s also not a scandal when a candidate has an extreme ideology, even if that ideology is widely reviled, like Nazism or white supremacism — ideology remains a matter of opinion, and we can’t be in the business of deciding where to draw the line between what’s extreme and what’s mainstream. Nor is it a scandal when a candidate deviates from social norms on things like bagels and Bigfoot erotica; a candidate’s personal tastes are just that — personal. And it’s not a scandal when a politician does something that’s legal but has bad optics. For example, Rep. Tom Marino lost out on the job of drug czar because he pushed a bill championed by pharmaceutical companies that made it harder for the Drug Enforcement Administration to stop shipments of drugs the agency believed were destined for illegal street sales — but even if the bill, as opponents charged, exacerbated the opioid crisis, it doesn’t meet our definition of scandal because he didn’t break any rules. By the same token, it’s also not a scandal when a candidate has been close to some sketchy activities but he or she hasn’t explicitly been implicated in any wrongdoing. For example, that’s why Tallahassee Mayor Andrew Gillum, the Democratic candidate for Florida governor, won’t carry the scandal variable in our gubernatorial model. The FBI is reportedly investigating actions that Tallahassee’s community redevelopment agency took during Gillum’s time in office, but there is no indication — at least so far — that Gillum himself did anything wrong or even knew about any wrongdoing.

So now that you’ve got the ground rules, do you know of any scandals that aren’t incorporated into our model? Get in touch.


  1. We identified four formerly scandal-plagued candidates on the 2018 ballot who met this standard. The first is former Secretary of Agriculture (and now U.S. Senate candidate) Mike Espy, who was accused in 1994 of accepting improper gifts but was acquitted in 1998. The second is Rep. Maxine Waters, who was charged with House ethics violations in 2010 but cleared in 2012. The third is Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, whose campaign was ruled in 2015 not to have violated campaign-finance laws. The fourth is Cisneros, whom Fazli accused of pressuring her for sex in May. After talking with Cisneros this week, Fazli tweeted that the incident was a “huge misunderstanding.”

  2. For technical reasons, the penalty is not exactly the same from scandal to scandal; the scandal penalty generally winds up being slightly larger in closer races, for example, and we discount the effect of older scandals. However, we do not distinguish “better” from “worse” scandals. The variable takes the form of a binary — whether a scandal occurred or not.

  3. That is, 1/(8+1) = 1/9.

  4. As of the publication of this article on Oct. 3; it’s possible that another scandal or two will break in the days before the election.

Nathaniel Rakich is a senior editor and senior elections analyst at FiveThirtyEight.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.