On Herman Cain, Bill Clinton and Popularity During Scandal

By Gary Langer

Nov 3, 2011 2:04pm

A quick Herman Cain-related comment on scandals, from the public-opinion perspective:

Our past polling has indicated that, for officeholders, the public assesses scandals on three main points: Whether they indicate serious wrongdoing, not a trivial offense; whether they’re relevant to the individual’s official responsibilities; and whether they’re contemporaneous or at least reasonably recent, rather than from the deep, dark past. A scandal needn’t fire on all these cylinders but they’re relevant in its ultimate impact.

This is why Clinton-Lewinsky, for example, did not rebound nearly as negatively on Bill Clinton, in terms of public assessments of his acceptability for office, as some had expected. While it was current, it was for most neither serious enough, nor relevant enough, to outweigh the positive elements of his job performance. It hurt him in terms of personal assessments far more than in terms of professional ones. (And it backfired on his critics; the impeachment effort pushed the GOP to its greatest unpopularity on record.)

Note, too, that the Gennifer Flowers issue had previously come and gone; its handling may be more instructive for Herman Cain today. Cain now, like Clinton then, was not an officeholder but a candidate, and therefore more potentially vulnerable. That’s because potential voters are in the opinion-formation stage, a fraught period in which questions of personal character can be particularly meaningful. Opinions that are in flux are more easily influenced than those fully formed.

Indeed, the risk to Cain may be less among his current supporters than among those who may now think twice before signing on.

Lastly, a reminder of how public opinion works. It’s rarely as reactive as commonly thought. Rather, people generally exercise what’s known as considered judgment, assessing information as it becomes available, evaluating whether it warrants reconsideration of an existing opinion, then either adjusting relevant views, or deciding not to do so, on that basis. In evaluating the Cain situation, there’s more for the public to learn, in a process that has only begun to play out.

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