Tag Archives: Scandal

When Will Republicans Bail?

With one shocking headline after another, many progressives are starting to wonder if there is anything that would cause Republicans to stop supporting Donald Trump. Historically, partisans tend to rally around their president during a scandal. As the prior two links explain in more detail, Republicans didn’t start jumping ship until near the end of the Nixon investigation. Reagan’s approval among Republicans never dropped below 73 percent. Bill Clinton actually grew in popularity during the Monica Lewinsky investigation, since he was able to portray it as the work of a rabid partisan prosecutor.

It seems unlikely that leading Republicans who had backed Trump in the past will quickly bail on him now. Every prior backing ties these Republicans closer together. Any Republican who breaks ties now will face questions of “why didn’t you do this sooner?” The Republicans who break with Trump over the Comey firing and/or Trump’s ties to Russia will probably be the same Republicans who refused to endorse him in the general election and have otherwise taken a stand.

It looks like we need to wait for Republican voters to turn on Trump. Then Republicans in Congress will jump off the sinking ship. That’s not exactly the most optimistic proposition. After all, Trump faced a major scandal one month before the election when the Access Hollywood tape was released. Trump boasted about committing sexual assault on this tape. Anderson Cooper confronted Trump during the next debate about whether Trump understood what he was admitting to. Many progressives thought there was no way Trump could win after the tape came out…but he won the Electoral College anyway!

Obviously, a lot has happened in American politics since the Access Hollywood tape and the election. Voters who were willing to give Trump a chance could always say enough is enough. But how come voters didn’t reach this conclusion during the election? I thought it would be worth checking the 2016 American National Election Survey. The ANES has two waves, one before the election and one after the election. In the post-election wave, they asked two questions specifically about the Access Hollywood tape:

In October, the media released a 2005 recording of Donald Trump having a crude conversation about women. Have you heard about this video, or not?

95.54 percent of respondents said they heard about the video. There’s little partisan split: 95.11 percent of Trump voters said they heard about the video. So what did they do with the information. The ANES didn’t ask “did the video affect your vote?” Instead, they asked how others should use the information:

In deciding how to vote, how much do you think the information from the video should have mattered to people?

A great deal, a lot, a moderate amount, a little, or not at all?

I’m not an expert on polling language. My naive assumption is that asking should this have mattered to people is better than asking how did this affect your vote. Strong partisans probably made up their mind about the election well before the tape came out. However, strong partisans may also have the strongest feelings about what moderates should do with this information. To start off with, let’s look at some crosstabs for how people answered this question, based on who they said they voted for:

Video Should Matter… Other Voter Trump Voter Overall
A Great Deal 55.46% 1.99% 32.07%
A Lot 20.80% 4.37% 13.61%
Moderate Amount 13.26% 20.67% 16.50%
A Little 6.36% 34.59% 18.71%
Not At All 4.12% 38.39% 19.11%

There’s a definite partisan split here. There are also some differences within each group. Are there any other variables that explain how voters thought people should make sense of the Access Hollywood tape? If there’s something here beyond the basic “who did you vote for?” this may give us some clues about how people will react to Trump’s more recent scandals.

To test this possibility, I ran an ordered logit regression. The ologit model assumes we can create separate bins for each response category and place them in order from left to right. Each independent variable pushes respondents to the left or the right. For example, voting for Trump probably pushes people to the “the tape should not matter at all” side. The ologit model also assumes there are no walls or speed bumps that would keep a respondent in a middle bin instead of going all the way to an extreme if the value on the independent variables is high or low enough.

Here are the independent variables I used:

  • trumpvoter: Did the respondent vote for Trump or someone else? (Non-voters are in the ANES but excluded here)
  • male: Is the respondent male?
  • senior: Is the respondent a senior citizen? (Age 65 or older)
  • collegegrad: Is the respondent a college graduate?
  • nonwhite: Is the respondent non-Hispanic White or not? (I tested more specific racial categories)
  • foxindex: Did the respondent watch The O’Reilly Factor, Hannity or The Kelly File on a “regular basis” the month before the election? I added the yes responses together. The ANES tells respondents to check the box if they saw a particular TV show once in the last month. It’s a very low bar for TV news. Nonetheless, 65.42 percent of Trump voters have a zero here.
  • msnbcindex: Did the respondent watch Hardball, The Rachel Maddow Show or All In With Chris Hayes? I added the yes responses together for a 0-3 scale.
  • anynightlynet: Did the respondent watch any of the network nightly news broadcasts? Since these broadcasts are direct competitors in the same time slot, an index doesn’t make sense here. It’s just a yes/no variable.
  • ideology_post: The respondent’s self-described political ideology on a seven point scale, where 1 is strong liberal and 7 is strong conservative. Respondents who said they haven’t thought about their political ideology much were excluded (when I double-checked in a separate analysis, they were like moderates on this question). Strong liberals are the omitted category.

Here are the results. Positive coefficients push people towards saying the Access Hollywood tape should not matter at all. Sadly I have to screenshot this, so apologies for the mess:

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 8.56.54 AM

Screen Shot 2017-05-19 at 8.53.49 AM

Even after I added a bunch of control variables, whether or not someone voted for Trump is still the biggest factor determining how much they think the Access Hollywood tape should have mattered to people. It’s not surprising that Trump voters would back their candidate and tell others to ignore the scandal. Loyalty to a particular candidate (or maybe a party) blows most variables out of the water. The gender difference is so small that it is not statistically significant. Fox News didn’t push viewers further right here, although MSNBC pushed viewers a little further left.

The big surprise is the effect of political ideology. When I first ran this model, I treated ideology as a linear variable. I didn’t expect there to be anything all that dramatic. Using political ideology as a categorical variable was one of those last minute “I better double check everything before hitting publish” situations. In this model, strong liberals are the omitted category. The regression coefficients measure the difference between moderates and strong liberals, strong conservatives and strong liberals, etc.

Everyone is considerably to the right of strong liberals’ feelings about the Access Hollywood tape. Maybe a better way to put it is strong liberals felt very strongly that the tape should matter a great deal to people. Other respondents had more mixed opinions. After controlling for who someone voted for, there isn’t much of a difference between moderates and strong conservatives. To help make these regression coefficients more concrete, I used Stata’s margins command to give predicted probabilities for some respondents:

Not Trump Not Trump Trump Trump
Strong Lib. Moderate Moderate Strong Cons.
A Great Deal 87.36% 42.40% 4.02% 3.38%
A Lot 7.82% 24.30% 6.66% 5.71%
Moderate Amount 3.52% 18.44% 20.56% 18.46%
A Little 1.00% 6.83% 34.98% 34.58%
Not At All 0.30% 2.22% 33.78% 37.87%

There is a big jump among people who didn’t vote for Trump between strong liberals and moderates. (The median Clinton voter identified as slightly liberal.) There is another big jump between moderates who voted Trump versus moderates who voted for someone else. However, the difference between moderate Trump voters and strong conservative Trump voters is minimal.

Strong liberals rallied around the Access Hollywood tape. I don’t think any of the strong liberals I knew gave Trump a chance of winning after the tape was released. All the criticism of Trump being unqualified because of his incompetence and racism turned in to criticism that Trump is morally unqualified because he bragged about sexual assault. How could anyone but the most committed conservative vote for this man? I was always a bit dubious about this argument. Historically, the United States is a bit of an outlier in expecting moral purity from heads of state. Some voters are deeply affected by seeing someone who bragged about sexual assault in the White House. Other voters are more selfish, and mainly want to know what government will do for them.

Without any polling or data, my guess is that the current scandals surrounding Trump will play differently. Trump fired the head of the FBI and is making sweeping changes to law enforcement philosophy. Trump gave classified intelligence to the Russians and may have deep ties to Putin. This would fundamentally weaken national security. Trump’s current scandals are less symbolic. It’s easier to connect Trump’s latest actions to dangerous policy. If strong liberals focus on the tangible implications of Trump’s scandals – not just the symbolism – it may be possible to pull moderates and weaker conservatives away from Trump.

Leaks, Scandals and Gossip

When I was seriously considering a career in journalism, I got a surprising amount of pushback from my dad’s side of the family. They weren’t worried about the bad hours or the low pay. Instead, my dad and grandmother kept telling me stories about my great grandmother. She worked for the Democratic Party in New York City. For a while she also had a high ranking position in city government. Her position came with perks. Every Thanksgiving my dad told the story about how his grandmother was able to snag some of the best tickets for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade for him and the rest of the family!

My great-grandmother also had some influence over who the city hired for civil service positions. Grandma said “she was just helping good people from the neighborhood who were out of work.” The New York Times saw it differently. A reporter finished a story on corruption at City Hall. When my great-grandmother found out about the story, she had a small heart attack! She lived, but those dastardly investigative reporters from the Times ended her career. I never met my great-grandmother, but the rest of my family still celebrates her legacy. Her first name is the only name in the family to be passed down from one generation to another. When I started doing investigative journalism, my grandmother gave me a guilt trip like taking a side against the rest of my family.

During my time as an investigative reporter, I once received documents showing that Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratory was missing “power generators” along with a wide list of other equipment. Los Alamos is the birthplace of the atomic bomb. Two whistleblowers leaked documents showing a combination of unaccounted for equipment and personal purchases made with lab credit cards. In other words, some employees were using our tax dollars to buy themselves expensive grilling equipment. The whistleblowers blacked out any classified information then sent the documents to a government watchdog group, who sent them to any reporter who asked.

These whistleblowers show why journalists give anonymity in certain cases. Los Alamos found out who was leaking the documents and fired them. But investigative stories continued after I pointed other reporters to a suspiciously “coincidental” retirement of the University of California Vice President in charge of running the national laboratories. Once the scandal grew the whistleblowers were re-hired to help clean up the mess.

Reporters prefer having on the record sources, so a source that can only be anonymous should have access to more newsworthy information than on-the-record sources. If two events are equally newsworthy, the one that has on-the-record sources is far more valuable. However, a wide range of sources have realized they have unique access to information. They have the leverage to demand anonymity, even if they won’t get fired for speaking publicly. Sports may be even worse than politics in this regard. Art Briles’ agent is reportedly trying to plant rumors that high-profile schools are looking to hire Briles as football coach within a year of him being fired at Baylor for his part in a massive coverup of sexual assaults. Many reporters are perfectly willing to put Briles name in to a list of possible coaching hires, writing stories based completely on rumors and innuendo.

I’ve always had a pretty high standard for anonymous sources. I wanted them to provide documents, not just claims. During California’s 2002 statewide election I was put on a team to report live from the Democrats’ reception in a Los Angeles hotel. Democratic incumbent Grey Davis was deeply unpopular but many Californians saw him as the least bad option. Crowd reactions were incredibly dull and muted. What else could we expect from the lowest turnout election in state history? The night dragged on as Davis couldn’t build enough of a lead to go on stage and declare victory. (Davis won with 47.3 percent of the vote as over 10 percent of the voters went with a third party candidate. He was recalled a year later.)

I was incredibly bored covering this event, so after a while I started talking with two young men holding Corona bottles. They were right at the front of the room and actually hid the empty bottles under the stage. I didn’t see anyone else with bottled beer, so I asked where they got it. They said they got it from lieutenant governor Cruz Bustamante. He was allegedly sharing beers with supporters and didn’t bother to check whether said supporters were of legal drinking age. I rolled my eyes a bit but kept talking to them. There was no way for me to verify whether these college kids were telling the truth. Even if they were, giving a beer to consenting 20 year old isn’t much of a scandal. It’s salacious. People are interested when I tell this story years later. But Bustamante’s behavior was not malicious and would not affect the public. It’s gossip, not news.

When I see headlines about hacked DNC e-mails, I usually just shrug. Here’s one headline currently on the Washington Post: “Hacked e-mails show anxiety about Clinton Candidacy.” The lead quote is “Right now I am petrified that Hillary is almost totally dependent on Republicans nominating Trump.” I can see why people would think this is some sort of juicy tidbit. But campaign operatives wouldn’t be doing their job unless they tried to calculate the best general election opponent. If you have enough deeply committed operatives, one of them is going to send a panicked e-mail eventually. The New York Times ran a story a few days ago with the headline “Hillary Clinton’s Campaign Strained to Hone Her Message, Leaked Emails Show.” The actual e-mails were surprisingly generic. Most campaigns have to work hard to calibrate their message to get the maximum number of voters.

Reading these stories reminded me of students who would do a lazy cut and paste from lecture slides instead of synthesizing the material. Take the Times‘ story. Is there any evidence that the Clinton camp’s struggles are somehow different than other campaigns? Are these leaks just a rare chance to see what political operatives do on a regular basis? It’s easy to copy and paste the salacious bits without giving much context. People will click on the story because it seems juicy. But the salacious bits are just empty calories. The meaty story is in explaining whether or not the Clinton camp is unusual.

A friend asked me whether journalists should treat these leaked e-mail stories differently because there is evidence these e-mails come from Russian hacking. I was with my dad when the big wave of e-mails about the Democratic National Committee were leaked days before the start of the Democratic National Convention. Which is more important: the head of the DNC tried to help Hillary Clinton or Russian hackers were trying to sew discord among Democrats? My dad canvassed for Bernie Sanders so he was outraged over the content of the e-mails. I recognized that a government hacking the e-mails of a foreign political party in order to embarrass them represents a new frontier in international conflict. Every election has endorsements and professional operatives favoring certain outcomes. We already knew Clinton had an unprecedented landslide of insider endorsements. The specter of foreign hacking is new.

My father and I agreed to disagree on which story angle was more important. I was pretty sure he was being manipulated by foreign hackers. He didn’t really care if he was being manipulated, because he was already so convinced that Clinton was a poor choice for the Democrats. The bar for publishing these emails was already far too low. Most of these stories are salacious empty calories, regardless of how reporters got the information. There’s little corruption or malice, just embarrassing gossip. But people like reading gossip. Smart manipulators know this, whether they are foreign hackers or unscrupulous football executives. I’d treat the Wikileaks email stories differently because hacking, spying and cybersecurity are much more interesting and important stories.