Why Don’t Scandals Move the Needle in Election Polling?

Despite repeated scandals and gaffes on either side of what has been a consistently antagonistic and even volatile election, media coverage of these blunders has done little to shift American voters towards or away from their candidate.

To anyone paying attention to this presidential election or contemporary American politics as a whole, it is obvious that there is a visible and widening partisan rift between political parties. Tensions are high, and resentment between Republicans and Democrats seems to increase by the day.

RealClearPolitics has been tracking polling trends over the course of this election, revealing very steady numbers for both Clinton and Trump.

On July 5th, FBI Director James Comey announced that the FBI investigation of Clinton’s use of her private email server was “extremely careless” but recommended that no charges be filed against her. As a point of great concern for many voters this election cycle who have lost trust in government leadership, this announcement would surely rile the public.

In the coming days though, Clinton would only lose roughly half a point in the polls.

Comey also told Congress Sunday that no new evidence in the latest investigation of Clinton’s emails will change his original conclusion that Clinton should not be charged for her handling of classified information.

Following the release of the Access Hollywood tape in which Donald Trump is heard to be bragging of sexual conquests and assaults, national polls demonstrated only a two-point loss–which was likely predicted to be higher–over the next few days, only to recover the loss in the coming weeks.


Trump on Access Hollywood | Credit: The Wrap

There is something to be said about the deep partisan entrenchment when there is little reaction after a presidential candidate is accused of such high-level impropriety or even sexual assault.

It could suggest that voter allegiance to a given candidate has less to do with analysis of political qualification, and more with media status conferral. Effectively, conservative and liberal media outlets consistently reinforce existing ideas that voters have about their preferred candidates, blurring scandal into irrelevance.

One also might consider the nature of this election as particularly scandalous, and the responsibility of the media to keep up with the frenzy. It can be very difficult to give a thorough report and analysis on a these events before having to cover the next gaffe, thereby rendering one scandal inconsequential in the presence of a new blunder.

On either side of the political spectrum, voters are subject to a scandal-mongering press that predates this unusual election cycle.

Bill Clinton faced the full brunt of media’s obsession with the lurid throughout his political career for his various sex scandals as the press corroded Clinton’s resolve until he finally admitted to his various affairs.

Coverage of the Monica Lewinsky scandal in particular had profound effects on public perception of the Democratic party; there was a big reduction in Democratic votes and polls reflected that the scandal continued to affect Clinton’s low personal approval ratings even after his confession.


Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky | Credit: Business Insider

Voter behavior has clearly changed since the Lewinsky scandal, as voters have become more rigid in their position and unwilling to let even massive blunders deter them from voting for their usual party.

It becomes important to ask ourselves, as members of the media, at what point will round-the-clock reporting on scandals – that are identical in nature – become a practice of retaining partisan voters and deepening party rifts.

The FBI’s thorough investigation into Clinton’s emails has been an important process in ensuring candidate eligibility–especially if there really had been something questionable or dangerous to be found. Trump’s divisive rhetoric and unprofessional behavior should be addressed. But at what point does this coverage become excessive?

It’s possible that in response to 24/7 reporting on these scandals, the public has drowned out the redundancy of a scandal – obsessed press into ambivalence. In turn, voters insist on throwing their support to a candidate – no matter the magnitude of the scandal – because their party chose him or her as its nominee. Scandals no longer move the needle.

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