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I.R.S. Targeting of Conservative Groups Could Resonate in 2014

My rule of thumb is that a vast majority of alleged political scandals will have less electoral impact than the conventional wisdom initially holds.

There are two main reasons for this. First, voters weigh major issues like economic performance and the conduct of foreign wars heavily in making their decisions, leaving relatively little room for everything else. Second, the news media may overplay the lead story, scandalous or otherwise, on any given day, even though it may turn out to be relatively unimportant in the context of a multiyear political cycle.

But the recent admission by the Internal Revenue Service that it targeted conservative organizations with terms like “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names when they applied for tax-exempt status could be an exception. It has the potential to harm Democrats’ performance in next year’s midterm elections, partly by motivating a strong turnout from the Republican base.

Political scandals do not lend themselves especially well to data-driven analysis. But several years ago, I developed a series of five questions meant to determine whether a potential scandal “has legs.” Some of the questions have support in empirical literature, while others are more subjective. The exercise is modeled after Bill James’s “Keltner list,” a series of gut-check questions that were meant to test a baseball player’s suitability for the Hall of Fame.

The questions, with some minor wording differences from their original versions, are posed below. My conclusion, as you’ll see, is that the I.R.S. story scores relatively high, meaning it could have a substantial political impact.

1. Can the potential scandal be described with one sentence, but not easily refuted with one sentence?

In this case, the gist of the scandal can be expressed in 140 characters, as The Associated Press did on Twitter last week: “IRS apologizes for inappropriately targeting conservative political groups in 2012 election.” Subsequent reports have found that the I.R.S.’s scrutiny of the conservative groups began even earlier, in 2010. That detail notwithstanding, throw the words “I.R.S.,” “inappropriately,” “targeting” and “conservatives” into the same sentence and the news story is evident.

The potential explanation or defense of the I.R.S.’s actions, however, would be more long-winded. It is possible to ask questions about who within the I.R.S. authorized and had knowledge of the targeting, whether anyone sought to stop it, whether liberal groups were also targeted to any meaningful extent, what the tangible impact of the targeting was and whether political groups misuse 501(c)(4) laws for tax exemption. My purpose here is not to evaluate the credibility of these questions. But they rely on a series of relatively technical arguments.

This contrasts with the controversy surrounding the White House’s handling of the attacks on the United States’s diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya. In that case, the claims made by Republicans are often technical and detail-oriented. Such claims are not necessarily unwarranted — the world can be a complicated place — but relatively simple claims usually do better as they are litigated by voters and the news media, who have many demands competing for their attention. Simplicity seems to be on the Republicans’ side in the I.R.S. case in a way it hasn’t been on Benghazi.

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

“Candidate” in this case should be interpreted loosely, since President Obama will not be on the ballot again and has not been linked directly with any wrongdoing at this point. However, the I.R.S. story has the potential to affect perceptions of the executive branch, the Democratic Party and the United States government as a whole, and Mr. Obama by implication, since he is the head of each of those institutions.

The intent of this question is to evaluate whether a potential scandal undermines the core of a politician’s claim to credibility. For instance, a candidate who campaigned as a moral crusader might be more affected by a sex scandal than one who ran as a policy expert, while the policy expert might be more threatened by an accusation of a forged research finding.

In a basic sense, scandals that reduce trust in government have the potential to harm those who argue for more government. Mr. Obama has predicated much of his agenda on the idea that Americans can and should trust the government to take action on health care, gun legislation and other issues. An issue like the I.R.S. scandal could be seized upon by those who argue that background checks for gun purchases will lead to a national registry, or that information the government collects in implementing the health care law will be abused, even if the government promises it will not.

In 2008, Mr. Obama ran partly as a “post-partisan” candidate, a claim that might be undermined if there was partisan targeting of conservative groups under his watch. And in the past six to eight years, Democrats have sometimes campaigned on what they said were superior standards of ethics, transparency and honesty in government. However, these themes were not as pertinent in the 2012 elections, which were contested mostly on economic policy.

3. Does the scandal reinforce a core negative perception about the candidate?

A scandal can be equally dangerous if, rather than undermining a candidate’s strengths, it reminds voters of what they like least about him.

President Obama’s opponents have long accused him of using rough-and-tumble, “Chicago-style” political tactics. However, he is a polarizing figure who has been accused of all sorts of things, and it would be hard to narrow what his opponents dislike about him to any one characteristic or issue.

But when it comes to the grievances of Tea Party voters in particular, the I.R.S.’s actions could hardly be more substantively or symbolically resonant. Tea Party groups were explicitly targeted by the I.R.S. The Tea Party takes its name from the historical protests against unfair tax policy. And the I.R.S.’s admissions confirm longstanding reporting and complaints by conservative websites like The Blaze. The scandal could put the Tea Party back in the spotlight.

There could be some risks to Republicans in a re-energized Tea Party, but energy can go a long way in midterm elections, when turnout is otherwise fairly low. In addition, the scandal could make the Tea Pa
rty appear more sympathetic and legitimate to voters who had come to take an increasingly negative view of it. On balance, that seems like a favorable trade for Republicans.

4. Can the scandal be employed readily by the opposition without their looking hypocritical, risking retribution or giving life to a damaging counter-claim?

One problem Republicans have had in framing the politics around Benghazi is that they are taking on some relatively popular opponents — in particular Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her former role as secretary of state. In addition, the executive branch may have the upper hand in debates surrounding national security, as Mitt Romney discovered when he pressed Mr. Obama ineffectually on Benghazi in the final presidential debate last year.

The I.R.S., although it is not quite as unpopular as you might think, is a much better target for Republicans. Moreover, some Democrats are also starting to call for an investigation into the I.R.S.’s activities. Republicans could overplay their hand, but this scandal has the potential to be seen as more than an ordinary partisan squabble, and Republicans may have a lot of leeway before they risk a backlash.

5. Is the potential scandal occurring amid an otherwise slow news cycle?

According to research by Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth College, the news media’s attention to potential scandals tends to rise during a president’s second term, and has historically been especially high toward the beginning of his second term.

This could be partly a natural occurrence, if administrations become sloppier or more corrupt the longer they hold office. However, another factor may be that the early years of a president’s second term are fairly slow for political news. During this period, the next presidential election is still a few years away, but the president generally does not have as ambitious a legislative agenda as during the first term. This condition certainly seems to hold now: by one relatively crude measure, Google searches for the term “political news,” Americans’ interest in political news stories is close to an eight-year low.

I want to be clear that the I.R.S.’s targeting of conservative groups is not, in my view, a “media-created scandal.” However, the degree to which voters will give it precedence over other issues in 2014 may be affected by how much time the news media spends covering it, and that, in turn, will be affected by how many other news stories it is competing against.

In the near term, the I.R.S. scandal will be competing against news coverage of the Congressional hearings on Benghazi, which were the major political story late last week. In my view, however, this is a no-lose proposition for Republicans. The news media could portray the Benghazi and I.R.S. stories as “joint scandals,” meaning that both would get plenty of coverage at the expense of other issues like immigration reform. Or, the news media could focus on the I.R.S. case instead of Benghazi — but for the reasons I’ve outlined here, the I.R.S. story probably entails much more political downside for Democrats.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.