Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.
micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): For debate today: Will the President Trump-Stormy Daniels story cause political problems for Trump? This is all still developing, obviously, so let’s dust off an ancient “test” that Nate came up with to get a sense for whether a scandal would resonate.
The test — which consists of five questions (more yeses means the scandal will have a bigger effect) — isn’t super empirical, but the idea is to focus and structure our thinking. (Loyal readers might remember we last used this test for Hillary Clinton’s email “scandal.”)
So … let’s begin …
Question No. 1: “Can the scandal be reduced to a one-sentence sound bite (but not easily refuted/denied with a one-sentence sound bite)?”
julia_azari (Julia Azari, political science professor at Marquette University and FiveThirtyEight contributor): “Porn star porn star porn star”
(We should No. 1. refer to her as an actress, not a porn star, and No 2. note that technically Trump’s attorney paid her, not Trump himself.)
nrakich (Nathaniel Rakich, FiveThirtyEight contributor): BUT it can also be refuted with a one-sentence sound bite: “No, he didn’t.” So I would rate this one half-true.
julia_azari: If Barack Obama had done this, we would not be having this chat because the country would be burned to the fucking ground.
micah: I think I’m with Nathaniel, though, that because this can be pretty succinctly refuted, too, the question gets only a half-yes.
Of course, if Daniels or her attorney comes out with additional evidence, that complicates Trump’s defense.
julia.azari: The interesting thing about Nathaniel’s point is that that’s not exactly now I read the refutations that I’ve seen. What actually happened is less relevant than the narrative that some people are just out to get Trump because they don’t like anything about him. Which, pretty much.
perry: Right. I don’t think Trump’s defenders are really saying that he didn’t have sex with Daniels.
nrakich: The official defenders sure are.
julia.azari: But this is a persistent feature of scandal-defense discourse (hangs head in shame about unpublished paper from 2007 in drawer): With Richard Nixon and Watergate, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Ronald Reagan and Iran-Contra, the meta defense wasn’t so much that it didn’t happen, but that the people pushing this scandal are trying to deny the will of the people and persecute the president.
This was something Nixon said a couple of times during Watergate — that people pursuing the scandal simply wanted to deny the “mandate” of 1972. The Reagan line was something like “the people’s business is waiting.”
And so instead of actually denying the scandal, you reframe it. It’s hard to make a strong causal argument, but I think there is a sense in the public that scandals are “distractions” and not substantive when they’re already inclined to give the politician in question the benefit of the doubt.
micah: Nixon aside, does that tend to be an effective line of defense?
julia.azari: Clinton didn’t (that I found) talk directly about election mandates, but I think that reframing worked pretty well there.
perry: With Clinton, the general message that the affair was bad but that he was a good president and this was a distraction and not a reason to reverse the election results (by impeaching him) worked pretty well with a majority of the public.
julia.azari: It’s also pretty possible that for Nixon it was somewhat effective until the very end.
But if the scandal isn’t the affair itself but the cover-up — it may have violated campaign finance laws, for example — then maybe it can’t be so pithily summarized?
julia.azari: Yeah, I’d say campaign finance laws are the anti-pith.
nrakich: Eh, I think Perry summarized it pretty pithily.
micah: Well, yeah … “payoff” is pretty pithy.
nrakich: Right. People have an inherent sense that paying someone in exchange for keeping quiet is shady, regardless of how many Federal Election Commission regulations it violates.
micah: For context: So far, I think the story hasn’t changed anyone’s mind — Trump supporters are inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, and his detractors say it’s a problem.
Part of what we’re trying to figure out with this test, though, is does it have the potential to break that partisan gravity.
julia.azari: The reason I think this matters now, if I can keep yammering, is that while Trump didn’t win in a blowout like Nixon did in 1972 — far from it — and isn’t that popular, an underappreciated element of his support is the idea that he’s being persecuted by elite liberals who will find something to criticize no matter what he does.
perry: I think it’s worth asking is the scandal: No. 1. the affair? No. 2. the payoff? No. 3. both? No. 4. neither?
julia.azari: Whatever works.
micah: Yeah, and I think No. 2 is way more likely to work — though, I’d call it “the cover-up.”
julia.azari: If you’re an unsavvy person on the left, then it’s satisfying to talk about the affair because it makes evangelical voters look hypocritical. But a savvier person on the left might realize that the gender dynamics of that are really complex.
micah: Yeah, that unsavvy way of looking at evangelical voters is stupid and overly simplistic.
nrakich: My research into congressional resignations showed that a straight-up affair usually wasn’t enough to cause someone to resign. You needed something more salacious, like an anti-gay Republican man getting caught with another man or Anthony Weiner’s sexts.
Not that Trump was ever going to resign because of this, but I agree that the affair on its own isn’t going to be enough to … do whatever is going to come of this.
micah: OK, next question.
“Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand?”
julia.azari: Well, that takes us back to the evangelical question, kinda, right?
micah: I think this is a clear “no.”
nrakich: Yeah, let’s not overthink this. Trump’s brand — and I mean that literally — for years has been as a womanizer/high-life-living socialite.
perry: Not at all. Trump has been divorced twice. I think it is assumed that his philandering helped lead to those two divorces. He is assumed to be a rule-breaker who uses his wealth to change the rules. This does not at all cut against his brand. It’s on brand. Did anything Daniels say on Sunday in her interview with “60 Minutes” surprise anyone?
For example, Daniels said Trump hinted that he would get her on “The Apprentice” but didn’t follow through. He seems like someone who would do that.
julia.azari: I think it cuts against a very specific reading of the party brand, in a way that makes it easier for Trump critics to accuse his supporters of hypocrisy.
nrakich: Julia, your point is well taken, but I think Trump’s brand has to be considered separately from the GOP’s brand.
julia.azari: Me too, except when it doesn’t. I’m trying to think of something smart and brief to say about that.
I would be more amenable to that argument about separate brands if Trump hadn’t won the election and governed in such a straightforwardly conservative Republican manner for the most part. He’s not Ross Perot.
micah: I remember seeing someone argue — I can’t seem to find it right now — that the shady cover-up cuts against Trump’s “drain the swamp” rhetoric, but that seems like a stretch to me.
julia.azari: Yeah, to me too.
nrakich: To me, all the scandals about his Cabinet members’ shady use of money speaks to that a lot more strongly.
Question No. 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)?”
nrakich: You start to read this question and you begin nodding vigorously, but by the end, the answer is a little more in doubt.
julia.azari: I think the parenthetical is the key.
nrakich: The “but not one that has become so entrenched that little further damage can be done” is key.
julia.azari: Dammit! Now I have to buy Nathaniel a Coke.
nrakich: Next time I’m in Milwaukee, I’ll come knocking to collect.
perry: I actually think the Clinton affair allowed the right to bring back a narrative from the 1992 campaign that Clinton could not be trusted. They had struggled to find many examples of that narrative from 1993 to 1996.
Trump has been so untrustworthy and questionable in his behavior (Charlottesville, going to his golf courses and hotels every weekend as president, the constant inaccurate statements) that negative perceptions of him around ethics are entrenched.
julia.azari: Right, what Perry said.
micah: Boringly, we all agree here.
julia.azari: I still think there’s a party story, but maybe this isn’t the right place to tell it.
perry: I was going to use No. 4 to get into that, Julia.
micah: I guess, the one thing I would say, however, is that if some super clear-cut case of wrongdoing by Trump is found — i.e., he ordered his lawyer to hire someone to threaten Daniels — that could have an effect even if it furthers an already entrenched narrative.
nrakich: Micah, I agree with that.
It’s like Russia. Lots of smoke, but if Mueller/whoever finds that one undeniable link from Trump to the Kremlin, we’re in different territory.
It could have an effect in turning out Democratic voters, for example.
perry: Yes, if the allegation is “Trump allies threatened to beat up Daniels and her daughter if she talked about the affair,” the whole scandal is different.
micah: Question No. 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?”
perry: I know these controversies are much different, but I think Democrats are in a much weaker position here, having in recent memory defended a president who had an affair WHILE IN OFFICE with a White House intern and made some effort to cover that up.
julia.azari: This is where I think it gets interesting. Because the “porn star” discussion is important.
micah: Yeah. I think the answer here is “not right now.” Because of what Perry said and — I think this is what you’re getting at, Julia? — there are a ton of gendered issues here that would make Democrats look stupid.
julia.azari: The angle about Daniels’s line of work is pretty key to the story and yet also aggravates divisions in the liberal coalition.
micah: Yeah, Democrats screaming “PORN STAR!” isn’t a good look.
But, Perry, you think the hypocrisy matters here, too?
perry: In terms of this scandal crossing over and moving Republicans to condemn Trump — which may never happen anyway, under any conditions — yes, the hypocrisy part likely makes it easier for GOP voters to stand with Trump and say, “Democrats stood with their guy too.”
nrakich: Devil’s advocate: Bill Clinton is kind of on the outs with the Democratic Party these days. Can’t people like Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris credibly say, “That wasn’t us defending him.” Well, with Gillibrand it would be retroactive.
julia.azari: I think absolutely, but that still divides the party a bit.
nrakich: Yeah, true.
julia.azari: Gillibrand said something a few months ago (that Clinton should have resigned) and got some pushback.
With the Daniels-Trump story, the thing that matters is how violent and dominating the whole thing looks. If the stories about threats and stuff seem credible, then there’s the opportunity to frame subsequent elections as referenda on that kind of treatment of women. And it’s an open question about how such a referendum would turn out.
micah: That seems like the key question.
perry: Daniels, her lawyers and others are smartly trying to move this beyond “Trump had an affair” to “Trump treats women a certain way.” So I think Democrats have a way to make this a controversy that is not pinned on “porn star.”
micah: Right, so we have to wait and see how much evidence comes out on the latter framing and how the public sees it.
perry: Right, as Julia is saying, linking this to Trump having bad attitudes toward women is one way (along with campaign finance) to make this more than a sex scandal.
micah: Speaking of … question No. 5: “Is the media bored, and/or does the story have enough tabloid/shock value to crowd out all other stories?”
nrakich: I feel like it’s been this titanic struggle between an unstoppable force (how tabloidy/salacious the story is) and an immovable object (the stop-for-nothing pace of news cycles in the Trump era).
micah: That framing seems spot-on.
perry: I would say this story is crowding out others, though. Sen. Bernie Sanders — who, of course, hates Trump — has been complaining that the Daniels story is getting too much coverage and distracting from other issues. It has been covered way more than Trump’s limits on transgender people serving in the military that were announced Friday night, for example. Are we talking about Daniels two months from now? I’m not sure.
It looks like Daniels’s lawyers have a good media strategy to keep feeding the media more “news.”
micah: They’ve been very smart about teasing developments and prolonging attention — an almost Trump-like strategy!
julia.azari: So, one of my hobbyhorses is that rhetoric and frames matter less than fundamentals for elections, but they matter for governance. One thing I keep thinking about is that this may not affect the midterms, but how might it shape what happens after them? I realize I veered off the question.
micah: But that would only happen if this lasts in the news cycle, right, Julia?
julia.azari: Yeah, or if it comes back somehow. Like, if Democrats don’t do as well as predicted, I could see that story emerging as a reason why.
micah: Yeah — i.e., “Democrats focused too much on Trump’s character.”
I guess my suspicion would be that this is salacious enough to crowd out most news that’s good for Trump but will get overwhelmed if there’s a big Russia development or some other Cabinet scandal or whatever. That obviously doesn’t help Trump much, but still.
julia.azari: If the Democrats do win the House, the big question will be what’s the clearest case that sounds like an article of impeachment. Not the most important, the clearest. I think.
micah: Yeah, that’s a really good point. You saw that with Nixon.
There was all this talk about getting articles that included specifics.
OK, we’re almost out of time. Nate isn’t here to defend his test, so let’s savage it: What question(s) is this test missing?
perry: A big plus for Trump right now is that Democrats don’t have any power on the Hill. The Clinton email scandal was driven in part by House Republicans having lots of hearings about it and leaking stuff from their investigations to the press. In other words, which party controls Congress matters. If Democrats control the House next year, issues around Michael Cohen’s role as Trump’s lawyer/fixer and how Trump treats women and uses money and so on could become part of constant investigations. Hearings make news, push forward media coverage, etc.
julia.azari: Party. Have I mentioned party?
Shit — do I have to buy Perry a Coke now too?
micah: You do.
So maybe we need question No. 6: “Does the opposition party have a governmental mechanism to pursue the scandal and keep it in the news?”
perry: But there’s another aspect to party here right, Julia?
julia.azari: Yes. One of the elements is whether a scandal forces either party to deal with stuff that’s going to divide it. You would think this was the case for Trump and the Republicans, but I think elements of the party have resigned themselves to separating the person from the president.
But as I said earlier, there’s lots of potential for divisions among Democrats. That’s kinda like Nate’s question about opposition, though, so maybe it’s just a friendly amendment/rewording.
micah: Maybe No. 7: “Does pursuing or defending the scandal create or exacerbate divisions within either party?”
Any other questions people would add?
perry: My other point was that Democrats made Al Franken resign over a sex-related controversy, Republicans supported Roy Moore in the midst of what I would argue was a much more serious sex-related controversy. What would cause Democrats to abandon supporting a politician over a sex controversy in this era might be different from what would cause Republicans to do so, after they just backed Trump in 2016 amid many allegations of groping and other bad behavior toward women. The Democrats may be more willing to toss politicians overboard for sex scandals right now.
julia.azari: The other thing is that it’s not just about a sex controversy, but about the overall role of women, sexism and something like violence or domination. And it’s hard to talk about all that without sounding partisan, but there’s evidence that these are partisan issues.
micah: And maybe becoming more partisan.
nrakich: Micah, I think Nate’s test is more for assessing scandals right when they break, whereas we’ve known about this one for a couple of months now. So my thought is that we should look at whether we’ve seen an effect so far.
On Jan. 12, when the Stormy Daniels story first broke in the mainstream press, Trump’s approval rating was 39.1 percent, and his disapproval rating was 54.5 percent, according to the FiveThirtyEight tracker.
Today, his approval rating is 40.7 percent, and his disapproval rating is 53.4 percent (as of Tuesday night).
There was also this CNN poll released on Monday that found that people both believe the women and that Trump reached a recent high in approval rating.
So I just don’t think that this scandal, as it has been revealed so far, is damaging the president.
micah: That seems mostly right, Nathaniel, but I think this story has a lot of potential for further development and could shift a lot on the spectrum we mentioned early, from “an affair” <—–> “intimidation/cover-up/payoffs/bullying/campaign finance.”
So in that sense, I think it’s still a relatively “new” story.
nrakich: Lots of potential, but it’s been two months and not much has changed.
micah: That’s fair.
Here’s my summary of our answers (answers in bold):
- “Can the scandal be reduced to a one-sentence sound bite (but not easily refuted/denied with a one-sentence sound bite)?” Sorta, yes.
- “Does the scandal cut against a core element of the candidate’s brand?” Not really.
- “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)?” Yes to the first part; no to the second part.
- “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?” Maybe?
- “Is the media bored, and/or does the story have enough tabloid/shock value to crowd out all other stories?” Yes.
julia.azari: I go back again to my sense that in an environment this polarized, the electoral impact might wash out, especially for something like the midterm elections.