As I joked on Twitter (below), we really have no idea who is going to win the special election for Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ seat in the U.S. Senate, temporarily being filled by Senator Luther Strange.
Will it be Alabam Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who has been accused of sexually assaulting a 14-year old girl when he was 30? Or will it be Doug Jones, shamelessly pro-choice Democrat?
If you had asked me two weeks ago, I would have written a similar version of this piece, though with a slightly bluer prospectus. After all, it is rare to see a Senate hopeful survive a scandal as negative as Moore’s. But I find that that conclusion would be improper today.
As the contest stands, Roy Moore is ahead of Doug Jones in my average of polls by 3.4%. Although there are roughly 12 points of error in our past pol-based estimates of Senate elections (anything from Jones +9 to Moore + 15 could happen next Tuesday), the average nevertheless says that Moore is more likely to win than Jones.
I’ll cover more of the polling data closer to election day. What I want to address today is the movement in the polls, rather than our estimates of the election day vote share. Specifically, I want to focus on the staggering amount of attention Moore’s scandal garnered in the media, both online and cable. What may be more staggering to some readers, however, is the current near-blatant disregard in the media of the scandal. What once was front page news for multiple days has taken a back seat to other stories.
The two graphs above show how little attention the media, in its various forms, is now giving to Roy Moore — specifically when they mention his name and “sexual assault” (or a variant of the term) in nearby sentences. At the height of his scandal, Moore was mentioned 170 times per day in online news headlines, as the graphic on the left shows. Cable news networks mentioned his name in more than 33% of coverage on November 1st, 2017 – the day the news broke.
Yesterday, however, cable news mentioned Moore in just 2% of coverage, and no headline with his name was mentioned on the front page of Memeorandum.com. This lapse in coverage likely has substantial consequences for Moore. I’ll first point you to Harry Enten’s recent piece at FiveThirtyEight for a good, quick take on why.
I would also recommend the rather well-bodied literature on the electoral consequences of sex scandals. Daniel Shea’s “All Scandal Politics is Local” (1999) argues that local media coverage — specifically, the way the stories cover the scandal itself, rather than the politician or consequences of the election (to name just a few alternative factors) — is “a better predictor of election outcome than the number of stories written or the actual degree of infraction.” Shea’s paper, however, focuses on the effects of the 1992 House banking scandal, not sex scandals. As a note, Banducci and Karp (1994) find similar consequences of “Rubbergate” in a paper that I particularly enjoyed reading.
More in line with our present inquiry, Scott J. Basinger (2013) found that incumbent politicians who are involved in sex scandals see a 5% loss in vote share at their reelection bids. If the polls are right, the 3 point decline for Moore will be roughly in line with Basinger’s estimates.
Though these two papers are by no means a comprehensive representation of the literature on the electoral consequences of sex scandals, they answer our two most important questions. Do sex scandals have electoral consequences? And, if they do matter, does the media play a role in the severity of those consequences? Yes, the literature says, to both questions.
So while Republicans appear to be propping up Roy Moore (71% of Alabama Republicans think the allegations against him are false, according to a CBS/YouGov poll), we shouldn’t blame only heightened and negative partisanship for that. If the news media are not covering the scandal — and, to be clear, they no longer are— it is perfectly reasonable to expect support for Moore to rebound. Even if you don’t believe the literature on the subject this makes sense: If people aren’t hearing about the scandal, they’re simply more likely to forget about or disregard it. This isn’t speculation, either: remember when Donald Trump was caught on tape talking about grabbing women “by the pussy?” He’s the president now. Of course, there are compounding factors for why Trump won, but the fact that the story nearly disappeared in the media ten days after it broke should not be discarded.
To be sure, I’m not asserting that the news media bear all of the blame for Moore’s apparent comeback, and I’m certainly not blaming all journliasts for this. They are, after all, the ones who brought the allegations to light. However, if outlets going to continue to bypass coverage of important political scandals time and time again, they deserve at least a little credit for the outcomes of various elections. And, frankly, they deserve some blame for the political and institutional structures that allow people like Roy Moore to (allegedly) do what they do and still serve our country. If Roy Moore wins on December 12 (and I’ll have an official prognostication and election-night guide out next week), there may yet be another sexual predator in our government for whom the media are at least a little responsible.
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