Houston, Jan. 21, 2014— Not a day that goes by without a political scandal grabbing headlines. Over the past few days, Wendy Davis, a Texas state senator and Demorcratic gubernatorial candidate, has found herself under fire for misstating her life story and creating an innacurrate narrative. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s ‘bridgegate’ also continues to be a lead story. On the national stage, there’s ongoing criticism of President Obama and Hillary Clinton’s handling of the attack in Benghazi. Prior to these scandals, it was the Canadian mayor accused of using drugs and the former congressman and mayoral candidate who used Twitter and texts to send candid photos.
Brandon Rottinghaus, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston, has spent his career researching presidents and governors and their interaction with legislatures and courts, as well political scandal, media and public opinion. He can provide expert analysis of the relationship between the executive and legislative branches of government, political communication and political scandals involving presidents, governors and candidates running for those offices. Rottinghaus can be reached at 713-743-3925 or email@example.com
Rottinghaus recently talked about his research on political scandal.
How does a politician reclaim his or her brand and change the dialogue of the conversation when involved in a public scandal?
BR: The things that most politicians do when they are caught in scandals-- especially executives: presidents and governors— is they tend to try to retreat to their base. They want to make sure there is a firm, basic amount of support they can rely on. Some of the work that I’ve done demonstrates that the stronger the foundation in the legislature for either the governor or the president, the more likely they are to survive in office—especially surviving impeachment trials and keeping their jobs, in general. The same cannot be true, and is not true, for staff. Individuals who work for the president or governor, or are associated with the government in some other way that the executive has control over, tend to be the first to go in scandals. It’s not surprising to see that this is what happened to some of Chris Christie’s staff.
Is the Christie bridge scandal unfolding according to the blueprint that is most traditional in what you’ve found in your research?
BR: It seems to be true. One of the first things they did is order an investigation. An investigation led to certain key staff, and those key staff have functionally been terminated. Most politicians confronting scandal try to get to the heart of the matter and try to cut it out like a cancer as quickly as possible and, effectively, that’s what Chris Christie did.
I find scandals beget more investigations. That’s something we’ve seen happen. There have been additional inquiries into the use of certain kinds of funds from Chris Christie and other kinds of dealings, and that’s something that politicians don’t think about as a collateral to scandal.
Does the nature of a scandal impact the public’s response or opinion?
BR: The scholarship suggests that voters are more willing to forgive personal scandals and less willing to forgive financial scandals. Affairs and those kinds of things people tend to forgive. If the scandal is more financial of origin, voters are less inclined to forgive candidates and politicians for that.
Do executive officeholders govern differently in the midst of a scandal?
BR: One of the things governors do when they are confronted with scandal is they tend to try to become more unilateral. They try to become more aggressive in their use of their powers. The work that I’ve done finds governors tend to issue more executive orders that control their own government. They tend to also veto more. From an institutional perspective, they do tend to try to be more aggressive.
Presidents, on the other hand, are the opposite. They actually veto less and issue fewer executive orders and proclamations, because they tend to retreat. Why there are differences is interesting to think about. The kinds of relations that governors, in particular, have with their legislatures at the state level tends to be one of dominance. Presidents don’t dominate Congress.
When scandals break during a campaign, how can they affect candidates?
BR: I have a paper forthcoming in a journal that looks at what happens during a campaign for president when an individual is accused of something and some scandal emerges. What ends up happening is they tend to lose the ability to raise money— about $40,000 per day less of an intake. The scandals actually hurt Republican candidates more than they hurt Democratic candidates by about $20,000 per day. As you can imagine, the count of endorsements of public officials by other public officials goes down when there is a scandal. Endorsees want to make sure they have a winner on their hands, and scandals don’t always denote winners.
Hillary Clinton’s name is being mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2016 on the Democratic ticket. How will Benghazi or past scandals, like Whitewater, impact her?
BR: Hillary Clinton is in a different boat. She’s more of a known quantity. I think if she wanted to, she could lock-in the nomination tomorrow. Any kind of minor scandals she may have been involved in have been trumpeted by the amount of money she can raise and by the kind of profile she has.
Her husband’s affairs-- those are the kinds of things people tend to forgive and it wasn’t her scandal to begin with. If the scandals become more financial of origin, like Whitewater, it could be more problematic. Republicans will make some issue of Benghazi –- and perhaps even some Democrats-- but I don’t know that it’s the kind of major scandal that has an effect on her ability to get the nomination.
Media interested in speaking with Rottinghaus can also contact media relations representatives Marisa Ramirez at 713-743-8152 or firstname.lastname@example.org; or Shawn Lindsey at 713-743 or email@example.com. For broadcast media, UH offers liveshot/talkback capabilities through an uplink studio at Houston Public Media, located on campus.