Question: What do campaign contributors do when their favorite members of Congress become enmeshed in scandal?
Answer: Open their wallets wider and pour more money into protecting their investment in the tainted incumbents.
That’s the major finding of a new study that examines the fate of more than 100 members of the U.S. House of Representatives – including two from Michigan – who ran for reelection between 1980 and 2010 after a sex, financial, political or other scandal broke. In general, their voter support dropped but their campaign contributions grew.
“Indeed, the scandal revelation might send a signal that help is needed. Donors may, therefore, wish to contribute more to a scandal-tainted member out of the desire to protect a known quantity,” the study said.
Lead author Brian Hamel, a political science Ph.D. student at the University of California Los Angeles, said, “What is driving these effects are not personal attitudes but partisanship.”
With party control switching between Democrats and Republicans from election to election, “every single member of Congress you have in your party is pivotal to winning or keeping control.” Thus keeping a crooked or stained incumbent may be preferable to electing an honest challenger from the other side of the aisle, Hamel said.
When a favored incumbent runs into scandal-related problems, donors “circle the wagons” in their candidate’s defense, said Oakland University political scientist David Dulio, who teaches courses on American politics, including campaigns and elections, Congress and political parties.
“If you think about the decision to contribute, whether from the district or not, that’s more buy-in in some respects than just casting a ballot for somebody. You’re giving your hard-earned money, and those donors really believe in those candidates,” said Dulio, who was not involved in the study.
The study looked at campaign contributions and voting results for members of the House – including then-U.S. Reps. John Conyers, D-Detroit, and David Bonior, D-Mount Clemens – whose scandals received coverage, and thus national attention, in the New York Times. It didn’t distinguish between contributions from individuals and those from political action committees and did not include scandals that the Times didn’t report on.
The researchers classified scandals into four categories: financial, such as allegations of corruption; tax evasion and bribery; political, such as misuse of campaign money or House resources; sex, such as infidelity and sexual harassment; and other, such as drug use and drunken driving arrests.
Of 103 scandals covered by the New York Times during the period, 63% involved financial misconduct. Sex scandals were a distant second.
Conyers was embroiled in two scandals during the period. In 1992, he was named as one of the “worst abusers” among about 300 present and former members who bounced checks in the House Bank. Later, a 2004 political scandal led to a House Ethics Committee investigation in which Conyers accepted responsibility for using staffers to help other candidates’ campaigns for local and state office, including the successful Detroit City Council campaign of his wife Monica Conyers. He also assigned his staff to help take care of his children.
Conyers, a cofounder of the Congressional Black Caucus, had been one of the most influential lawmakers in Congress, chairing the House Judiciary Committee and Government Operations Committee when Democrats controlled the House.
The study didn’t extend to 2017, when Conyers resigned amid a sexual harassment scandal.
As for Bonior, it was a 1996 scandal that brought his campaign finances into the study. University of Houston political scientist Scott Basinger, who helped compile some of the scandal data that Hamel used, said it involved allegedly improper employment practices. The House Ethics Committee rejected the allegations.
Bonior served as House majority whip. He unsuccessfully ran for governor in 2002.
In 1992, Conyers raised $264,152 before news of his scandal broke and $675,227 post-scandal. In 1996, Bonior raised $612,864 pre-scandal and $1,008,829 post-scandal. In 2004, Conyers raised $312,724 pre-scandal and $360,000 post-scandal.
Scandal-tainted ex-Rep. Barbara-Rose Collins, D-Detroit, wasn’t part of the study because she wasn’t raising money after losing her 1996 reelection primary, Hamel said. She’d been cited for 11 ethics violations, including using staff for personal and campaign purposes and misusing House funds for political purposes.
The study emphasized that “donors’ reaction to scandal differs considerably from that of voters. On the whole, politicians embroiled in scandal garner fewer votes than their non-scandalous colleagues but they also raise more money.”
The study found that scandal-damaged incumbents got 4% fewer votes on average and were 11% less apt to win reelection than their clean – or at least uncaught – colleagues. They fared even worse when their scandals drew national media attention.
Even so, the odds are great that they win reelection: Incumbents won about 80 percent of the time post-scandal.
Two current Republican members, Chris Collins of New York and Duncan Hunter of California, won reelection last November while under federal indictment. Grand juries charged Collins with insider training and Hunter with misusing campaign funds for personal purposes. Both remain in the House, although stripped of committee assignments pending trial.
Members involved in scandals raise more contributions in the immediate aftermath of a scandal as do similar non-scandal-tainted members. So what might account for the “high rate of scandal survival?” the power of incumbency, the type of scandal and media coverage or visibility of the scandal?
“A scandal is an obvious political threat to a political career,” the study said. “Donors should, therefore, be more likely than voters to see a scandal as a challenge to overcome to protect their own interests, as opposed to an offense that warrants punishment.
The nature of the misconduct matters to voters, so a political scandal leading to an Ethics Committee investigation is likely to get less press coverage and citizen attention than a criminal case.
“Both voters and donors became more protective of scandal-tainted politicians after 1994, which has been identified as an important moment, where national concerns such as ‘winning a majority’ supplanted more localized ones such as winning a single seat for many voters.”
The researchers found a marked distinction between pre-1994 scandals and post-1994 ones. That demarcation point reflects the “nationalization” of congressional races, the “rise of national political media and the 24-hour news cycle,” Hamel and co-author Michael Miller of Barnard College wrote.
Why 1994? From the 1950s until then, Democrats held a solid majority in the House, Hamel said. “When you have a secure majority, the majority doesn’t think they’re going to lose it and the opposition party doesn’t think there’s anything they can do to win.”
Since 1994, “majority control has always been in question,” he said. “The major parties have been close in the number of seats,” and “every single member of Congress you have in your party is pivotal to winning or keeping control.”
Why do campaign contributors remain so devoted? According to the study published in the journal Political Research Quarterly, that’s because they’re “more ideologically motivated” than voters at large are and “might take a longer view, contributing more money in the wake of a scandal to protect their investment.”
ric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University. He is a former Lansing Bureau reporter for the Detroit News and has been a Fulbright journalism instructor in Uzbekistan, Lithuania and the Republic of Georgia.