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The fallout from infidelity: Do voters still care about a candidate's moral character?
Infidelity should be a key issue in the 2016 presidential election, but voters today seem to care less about cheating allegations. - photo by Kelsey Dallas
He's been open about sexual liaisons.

Her husband cheated when he was president.

Accusations involving infidelity have been lobbed at both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive presidential nominees for their respective parties, and will likely continue until Election Day. But political scientists say voters appear to be more worried about other issues.

"It's not that we've become a less moralistic society. It's that the things we're moralistic about are different," said Patrick Deneen, an associate professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame.

Deneen highlighted perceived hypocrisy and abuse of power as two top concerns of voters this year, which may explain why Trump, while never denying he's been a cheater himself, targets how Clinton went after the women involved in her husband's affairs.

"Trump recognizes that people aren't as likely to be outraged about his well-publicized sexual history. He's bragged about it and been crude and gross," Deneen said. "What Trump is getting mileage on is holding Hillary to the standards she claims to uphold, like her dislike of abuse of power. Trump argues that Hillary has been a kind of enabler, a helpmate in (her husband's) checkered past."

Morality and politics

Voters assess candidates on a variety of measures, analyzing their positions on key issues, their record in office and their family life, said Michael Miller, an assistant professor of political science at Barnard College.

"They combine a personal assessment what's my view of this politician as a person? with a professional assessment," he said.

Miller's research has shown that sex scandals downgrade voters' view of a politician, but not their assessment of the candidate's ability to do the job. Voters in his study were more concerned about tax evasion, which implied both a personal and professional failing.

An affair notably damages a candidate's reputation, but not as much as abuse of power, according to a 2014 Quinnipiac University poll.

More than 8 in 10 voters (83 percent) viewed the hypothetical politician James Miller "very" or "somewhat" favorably when provided with information about his campaign, the survey reported. His favorability dropped to 36 percent when respondents were told he was "unfaithful to his wife with another woman" and to 22 percent when respondents were told he created a well-paid position on his staff for an unqualified family member.

However, infidelity is a serious concern for some faith groups, as illustrated by a recent Pew Research Center survey.

More than half of white evangelical Protesants (56 percent) are less likely to vote for a candidate who has had an affair than one who hasn't, compared to 38 percent of white mainline Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics, Pew reported. Evangelicals would be more concerned about a cheater than a candidate who had personal financial troubles, unlike white mainline Protestants and U.S. voters in general.

These conclusions were drawn from people's responses to hypothetical situations, not from real-life headlines about Trump's history of cheating or Bill Clinton's impeachment trial over an affair while in office.

"I'm not sure people can divorce personal and professional assessments in actual elections. That's an open question," Miller said.

Evidence from past elections implies that voters often don't, Deneen said.

For example, Democrat Gary Hart's chances of winning the presidency in 1988 plummeted after The Miami Herald reported that he was cheating on his wife as he campaigned. Hart previously had dared reporters to try to find something unsavory about his personal life.

More than two decades later, Herman Cain, a GOP presidential candidate in the 2012 election, dropped out of the race in December 2011 after repeated accusations of infidelity derailed his campaign.

"If you think back to previous election cycles, the mere appearance of a kind of deep moral lapse was often enough to sink a candidate," Deneen said. "For much of American history, we expected the president and, more broadly, our public leaders to be pillars of probity and moral steadfastness. It was as much a job requirement to be good at policy and leadership as it was to be a moral exemplar."

America's aversion to infidelity has earned the country an international reputation, noted Pepper Schwartz, a sociologist at the University of Washington, in an email.

"We are more moralistic about cheating than most Western European countries," she said. "When President Clinton was in so much trouble over Monica Lewinsky, most of the French men I met thought Americans were prigs and naive. Of course a man of stature would have a young woman as a fling."

But Bill Clinton also serves as an example of how voters are sometimes willing to overlook infidelity, Deneen said.

When Clinton ran for president in the early 1990s, rumors swirled about his history of cheating. He and Hillary appeared on "60 Minutes" to address the accusations, winning voters back when Bill admitted that he'd caused pain in his marriage in the past.

"Even if he had these moral failings, he was willing to go through this public form of penance," and many voters forgave him, Deneen said.

Evolving standards

Although voters have been willing to forgive a cheater in the past, Trump's appeal has defied many political scientists' and the media's expectations.

"This election season is an exception in lots of ways," Deneen said, noting that voters this year also seem less concerned about the candidates' religious views.

He added that history has shown that voters' reactions to certain moral failings seem to evolve over time.

"I have this semi-theory that a kind of moral failing that was unacceptable in one candidate becomes acceptable in the subsequent candidate, Deneen said.

Douglas Ginsburg, a Supreme Court nominee in 1987, withdrew from consideration in 1987 after he admitted that he'd smoked marijuana several times. By 2008, when now President Barack Obama ran for office, he could speak openly about experimenting with marijuana and other drugs.

"There is a kind of process of becoming acclimated" to certain behaviors, Deneen said. "What once seemed scandalous becomes not as immediately disqualifying."

In this sense, Trump may be benefitting by previous high-profile politicians who were caught cheating, although his history of infidelity remains unsavory to some voters, particularly women and members of some faith groups, Schwartz said.

Only 26 percent of women, 35 percent of Catholics, 33 percent of Mormons and 37 percent of voters described as "highly religious" hold a favorable view of Donald Trump, Gallup reports.

However, members of some faith groups are even more critical of Hillary Clinton, whether because of their political outlook, their concern about her involvement in her husband's abuse of power or other issues.

While 46 percent of Catholics have a favorable opinion of Clinton, she's less popular than Trump among Mormons and the highly religious. Just 21 percent of Mormons and 35 percent of highly religious Americans view Clinton favorably, according to Gallup.

Deneen noted that the current, chaotic election season will likely have a notable influence on the next presidential election. Patterns seem to emerge when comparing election seasons, he said, adding that after periods of great societal change, voters seem to regroup and refocus on moral character.

"We seem to be becoming a less religious society, but we remain a deeply moralistic society," Deneen said. "A kind of intensified moralism might be one of the consequences" of the 2016 election.