The Electric Minor Political Scandal Acid Test

Newsweek reports that the McCains did not pay taxes for four years on a piece of San Diego beachfront property. Is this a significant scandal? Will the story have any legs? Allow me to introduce the Electric Minor Political Scandal Acid Test (EMPSCAT). I’ve been thinking of rolling this out since at least dinnertime tonight.

EMPSCAT consists of a battery of five questions. The more of the questions that can be answered in the affirmative, the bigger the impact of the story. The five questions — chock-full of Halperin style and/but/nots — are as follows:

1. Can the scandal be reduced to a one-sentence soundbyte (but not easily refuted/denied with a one-sentence soundbyte)?

This question is important. Something like “Boratgate” — the Clinton Library / Kazakhstan uranium mining quid-pro-quo-pro-quo that the New York Times reported on in January — had all the intriguing hooks of a spy novel, but also a plot as convoluted as Mission Impossible II.

2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand?

3. Does the scandal reify/reinforce/”prove” a core negative perception about the candidate, particularly one that had henceforth been difficult to articulate (but not one that has become so entrenched that little further damage can be done)?

Let’s take these two together. The classic political scandal is one that makes the candidate look like a hypocrite — a “family values” champion like David Vitter being caught with a hooker, or Larry Craig with his pants around his ankles.

But perhaps the more damaging kind is one that provides evidence toward a lingering perception about a candidate that had otherwise been hard to articulate. John Edwards’ $400 haircut, for instance: doesn’t seem like it should have been a big deal, but there was a perception out there that Edwards was a little superficial, and the haircut provided the “proof”. The “best” scandals combine both of these elements. Jeremiah Wright both undermined Obama’s unity message and gave voice to the notion that he hadn’t been fully vetted. Tuzla both cut against Hillary Clinton’s experience meme and played into the perception of her having a rocky relationship with the truth. 4. Can the scandal readily be employed by the opposition, without their looking hypocritical/petty/politically incorrect, risking retribution, or giving life to a damaging narrative? This is trickier territory than it looks. The Obama campaign couldn’t say much about Clinton’s comments on RFK without their looking even more tawdry than she did. The Clinton campaign couldn’t say very much about Jeremiah Wright without refreshing accusations of race-baiting. And the Law of Unintended Consequences often applies. It was partially because the Obama campaign pushed back a little too hard on Geraldine Ferraro that ABC News took “Politically Incorrect Comments Made by Associates” for$200 and investigated deeper into the Wright tapes.

5. Is the media bored, and/or does the story have enough tabloid/shock value to crowd out all other stories?

A slow media cycle never hurts.

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Let’s put La Jollagate through the EMPSCAT.

1. Can the scandal easily be reduced to a one-sentence soundbyte (but not easily refuted/denied with a one-sentence soundbyte)?

In this case, the answer is yes: “The McCains didn’t pay their taxes”.

The McCains’ best one-sentence rebuttal is probably: “It was a clerical error”. The problem is that (i) this one has been tried before, and (ii) it takes several more sentences to explain: the property was part of a trust, the trust was managed by a bank, and the bank didn’t get the bill. Besides, throwing your accountant under the bus isn’t an excuse to avoid paying taxes.

2. Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand?

Not to a large extent. McCain hasn’t made an especially big deal of housing or taxation issues, for instance. It may cut a little bit against the duty part of McCain’s honor and duty theme. There is also a potentially damaging subheadline — “What? The McCains have seven houses?” — but he hasn’t really tried to run as some sort of champion of the working class.

3. Does the scandal reify/reinforce/”prove” a core negative perception about the candidate, particularly one that had henceforth been difficult to articulate (but not one that has become so entrenched that little further damage can be done)?

Again, probably not — it seems like something of a one-off. You could try play it as McCain being old and therefore absent-minded, but that would violate Rule #4:

4. Can the scandal readily be employed by the opposition, without their looking hypocritical/petty/politically incorrect, risking retribution, or giving life to a damaging narrative?

Generally speaking, yes. It’s a big enough deal that the Obama campaign won’t look petty by raising it, nor so personal that they’d look insensitive. Nor is it an area where, as far as we know, Obama has had any problems (if he’s been delinquent on his taxes at any point — no sale).

What the McCain campaign will do is to try and portray it as a Cindy McCain issue rather than a John McCain issue, and remind the media that Obama said hands off the first ladies. But the Obama campaign could call that bluff and have a get-out-of-jail free card against the next Michelle Obama story. McCain also might try and bring up Tony Rezko, but that story has already failed the EMPSCAT several times.

5. Is the media bored, and/or does the story have enough tabloid/shock value to crowd out all other stories?

Yes. It isn’t a sexy story, but there’s little else going at the moment.

The La Jolla story passes three out of the five questions on the EMPSCAT. Medium-impact, but not spicy.

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

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