Santos and Reelection
Freshman Congressman George Santos has been in the press a lot: fabricating his education, his career, his volleyball prowess, his family history; accused of stealing money from a GoFundMe for an ailing dog, crimes committed in Brazil, and questionable campaign finances. It wouldn’t be surprising if more installments in his saga come to light. With so much drama, including his stepping down from committee assignments, we’re left wondering if he will finish his term. And if he does, will he run for reelection? If you’re like us, you may be thinking, “There’s no way he could possibly win, right…?”
So we looked into it.
Members of Congress who have been involved in scandals and sought reelection afterwards actually have remarkably good track records of winning reelection.
A group of political scientists (such a misnomer, it’s more of an art) examined the reelection fortunes of all members of the House of Representatives who became involved in serious ethics scandals over a 34-year period. The researchers studied a total of 88 members with a scandal and found:
- 26% resigned or retired.
- 25% lost in the next primary or general election
- The remainder—43 representatives, or about half of all members, touched by scandal during the study period—were re-elected. Generally, nearly nine-in-ten incumbents untainted by controversy win their races.
Most congressional incumbents don’t have close races and tend to win their reelection by 33 percentage points. After a scandal, however, their margin of victory decreases by 12 percentage points, to about 21 points. So, scandal does have a cost, even if the embroiled candidate wins.
And the effects of scandal linger longer than just one election cycle. In the election following the initial drop in support, incumbents gained back about half of the votes. It is not until the third election after the scandal that their average victory margin was back in line with the average for incumbents.
A second study specifically examined sex scandals in the era of #MeToo. The results show that incumbents who are involved in a sex scandal or other private, personal matters have a higher rate of retirement than members involved in a corruption scandal. While both sex scandals and corruption scandals reduce the incumbent’s vote share in the subsequent general election, the sex scandals have a slightly greater effect.
Will we see the return of Santos in the next Congress? Our bet is no, but like all things in politics, you don’t know until you know.