Which is worse for a New York Democrat seeking political redemption — sexting with women you barely know and aren’t your wife (former Congressman Anthony Weiner) or spending upwards of $80,000 illegally over several years on high-end prostitutes (former Governor Eliot Spitzer)?
According to new polling out from Marist and the Wall Street Journal, neither scandal appears to matter much at all to NYC Democrats. Marist polling from late June already showed Weiner holding a narrow lead in the mayoral primary with 25 percent of the vote, enough to push him into a two-way runoff in the fall. In the most recent survey examining the Democratic primary race for city comptroller, Spitzer leads Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer by a 42 to 33 percent percent. Forty-six percent of Democrats hold a favorable opinion of Spitzer, up 8 points from August 2010 polling. Forty-four percent believe he has “changed as a person” compared to 25 percent who think he has not changed. A full 67 percent of NYC Democrats say the former governor deserves a second chance:
These results are a bit startling but not surprising given empirical studies of political scandals. As George Washington University professor Danny Hayes summarized for Wonkblog last April, political science research tells us that scandal-tainted politicians typically lose public favorability and votes and often face strong opponents seeking to take advantage of their vulnerabilities. But existing investigations of political scandals also show that there’s a high probability that these events alone will not be enough to stop either Weiner or Spitzer from returning to public office. Why? Sex scandals typically don’t hurt politicians in ways that outright corruption scandals do. A full 63 percent of NYC Democrats say that Spitzer’s sex scandals matter either don’t matter or matter just a little in their decision for comptroller. The passage of time also helps as the public is willing to forgive and forget politicians who screw up. And finally, partisan context matters a great deal — in-party voters are willing to place other redeeming qualities of candidates, such as policy prescriptions or political savvy against opponents, above past transgressions.
The prior relationship of scandal-tainted politicians to their constituents also helps to determine the likelihood of future success. Here, the new polling is interesting. Anthony Weiner was viewed much more favorably than Eliot Spitzer prior to their respective downfalls but Spitzer appears to be in a stronger position in his particular race. The nature of the scandal might have something to do with it. A slight plurality of NYC Democrats find Weiner’s past actions more offensive than Spitzer’s (31 to 29 percent) with African American, non-college graduates, and older voters much more likely to view Weiner’s actions negatively than others.
Both men face difficult but not insurmountable odds as Spitzer scrambles to secure enough valid signatures to make the Democratic primary ballot for city comptroller and Weiner seeks to expand his narrow lead in the mayoral primary. Which scandal is worse and who is more likely to win? According to NYC Democrats — the only voters that matter at this point — Spitzer is in a slightly better position. Thirty-eight percent of primary voters would rather see “Comptroller Spitzer” versus 22 percent who would rather see “Mayor Weiner.”