Mark Sanford and the Affairs of State

Jun 24, 2009 3:34pm

Mark Sanford’s behavior is, shall we say, not helpful politically – particularly in the base.

The overview is not pretty at all: In a Gallup poll just last month, 92 percent of Americans said it was “morally wrong” for a married man or woman to have an affair. That is almost everyone. (In another poll, 64 percent said that if their spouse stepped out on them, they would probably or definitely not forgive it.)

For a little context, more in that Gallup poll rated an extramarital affair as objectionable on moral grounds than any of 15 other items the poll tested – including, for instance, the death penalty, suicide and cloning humans. (Separately, since you're wondering, in a poll we did back in 2004, 14 percent of Americans said they themselves have cheated on a spouse.)

Specific to politics, the recriminations can be lighter. In a 2007 Pew poll 56 percent said it wouldn’t matter to them if a presidential candidate had had an extramarital affair in the past, while 39 percent said they’d be less likely to vote for such a candidate.

But look at it by partisanship: A far higher share of Republicans, 62 percent, said they’d be less likely to vote for a candidate who’d had an affair. That dropped to 37 percent of independents and 25 percent of Democrats.

It’s similar but less striking by ideology: Forty-seven percent of conservatives said they’d be less apt to support a candidate who’d cheated on his or her spouse, compared with 38 percent of moderates and 26 percent of liberals.

As a prominent conservative Republican – just like Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., who admitted an affair last week – the level of objections in the GOP base obviously do not do much for Gov. Sanford’s political prospects.

Further, the Pew question asks about the vote impact if a candidate “had an affair in the past.” Scandal-wise, people tend to take a particularly dim view of misbehavior that’s not history, but concurrent with official duties.

On the other hand, Bill Clinton famously survived just this kind of misbehavior.

But not among conservative Republicans.

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