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Love at the Polls

News & Features | February 8, 2016

On January 25, in the aftermath of winter storm Jonas, The Washington Post ran a web article titled “Michelle Obama doesn’t let snow keep her from SoulCycle.” The Weather Channel also ran a web article about the storm, although their headline read, “Winter Storm Jonas: At Least 48 Dead; Roof Collapse Reported; D.C. Remains Shut Down.” Why would The Washington Post, a credible news source, run a quotidian and superficial story on Michelle Obama’s exercise habits? The logical conclusion is that Americans must care, perhaps more than we wish to admit, about the lives of these pseudo-celebrities—the first ladies, wives, husbands, and children who are closer to our nation’s leaders than we can ever hope to be.

Michelle and Barack Obama’s relationship is practically its own news beat, serving as frequent fodder for newspapers and social media alike. A quick Google search of the Obamas’ marriage reveals that public scrutiny of their relationship is widespread and generally focused on petty divorce rumors, Michelle’s secrets to a happy marriage, and romantic hand-holding photos. The American public seems to love the Obamas, perhaps because they represent the ideal American family: happily married with two children, scandal-free, hard working, and attractive. It is a common principle in psychology that people tend to trust people who look like them or who embody values and ideals that they support. Are politicians the unlucky few who are judged not only by the quality of their job performance, but also on quality of their love lives? If so, how do the romantic relationships, or perceived relationships, of prominent politicians influence public opinion and voting?

For much of America, particularly parts of the nation where education and wealth are lacking, the political sphere seems distant. Since 1916, no more than 63.8 percent of eligible voters have exercised their voting rights, which shows that almost half of all Americans abstain from voting on a consistent basis. For non-voters and those who don’t follow politics, it may be easiest to judge a politician on their personal life and relationship rather than their politics. This idea finds support in an anonymous survey conducted by the Tufts Observer about relationships and politics, in which one responder wrote, “I think people really love Michelle Obama, and that helps when we’re unsure about the Obama administration’s policies.” Tufts political science professor Deborah J. Schildkraut added, “In general primary elections, where all candidates are from the same party, things like marital status and family life may be more interesting [to voters].” When divergent party politics cannot set candidates apart, candidates’ perceived likeability and electability might be influenced by the quality of their personal romantic relationship or family life. The 2008 Democratic primaries resulted in a win for Obama, which may have been aided by his scandal-free personal life.

While President Obama’s marriage may bolster his public image—although not necessarily his voter approval ratings—many other prominent politicians have suffered professionally due to their romantic relationships. Most notably, the turbulent marriage of Bill and Hillary Clinton has reclaimed its place under the microscope of public scrutiny after a roughly decade-long hiatus, returning as a strong undercurrent in the 2016 presidential election. The Lewinsky scandal, which refers to the 1998 sex scandal surrounding an affair that President Bill Clinton had with a 22 year-old White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, has helped shaped American public opinion of the Clinton marriage. The scandal led to Clinton’s impeachment and subsequent acquittal later in ’98. This is one of the most talked-about sex scandals in recent political history. Despite media buzz surrounding the scandal, especially following Clinton’s impeachment, Hillary stayed quiet and composed in the face of relentless media scrutiny. In the context of today’s society, with topics like sexual assault and gender inequality continuing to grow as hot button social issues, it makes sense that matters of infidelity and sexual misconduct in the lives of our politicians would be of concern to constituents.

While Hillary Clinton has long been receiving criticism for staying with her husband after his numerous affairs, recent political mudslinging coming from the GOP is now pinning the candidate with new blame. In a January 10 appearance on Fox News Sunday, Donald Trump said, “No no, [Hillary’s] not a victim. She was an enabler…She worked—yes, she worked with [Bill] … There’s no feeling sorry for Hillary in this situation.” These comments came in response to an Instagram video posted by @RealDonaldTrump, the official Instagram account for Trump’s campaign. The video is a montage of photos that show Hillary Clinton standing next to famous perpetrators of sexual assault (actor Bill Cosby, politician Anthony Weiner, and her husband) paired with a voiceover of Hillary Clinton speaking about the important fight for gender equality. The video ends with a sarcastic statement about Clinton being a “true defender of women’s rights.”

Why would Trump post a video of this nature? Is he trying to sway voters away from Hillary Clinton, or is he merely trying to unite his pre-existing constituent base around a common enemy? Responders to the Observer Facebook poll most frequently answered the question “Can you name a politician whose career has been harmed by his/her romantic relationship?” with “Bill Clinton,” but the next most popular answer was “Hillary Clinton.” Apparently, members of the Tufts community believe that relationships have the power to harm a politician’s career. Therefore, Trump drawing attention to this aspect of Clinton’s relationships with Cosby and Weiner should effectively harm Clinton’s chances in the general election.

But contrary to this conventional wisdom, the notion that politicians’ personal lives influence voting tendencies lacks the scientific evidence needed to support it. Professor Schildkraut said Trump’s Instagram video may have been posted as an act of irreverence. Perhaps Trump posted it with the hopes that it would arouse negative press about Hillary Clinton, but certainly with the intent of making headlines himself. Schildkraut explained, “Politicians think mudslinging is effective because it gets [them] in the news, but it doesn’t really affect the person who is being slandered.”

Politicians are frequently evaluated based on their electability, a term Schildkraut explained is determined by a number of factors. One of these factors is media presence. A candidate who frequently makes news headlines and receives a lot of attention is considered more electable than a candidate who flies under the radar. Thus, in this instance, Trump used Senator Clinton’s personal relationships as a weapon, one that would increase his own electability even if not necessarily doing anything to affect Clinton’s.

In a media-saturated, gossip-fueled society, Americans want to believe that the juicy, scandalous details leaked by political spokespeople and inside sources can affect the careers of prominent public servants; they want to believe that there are more factors at play than just boring party lines. “We think that it’s like reading tea leaves. We think that these things matter.” explained Schildkraut. But the truth is that these things, things like marriage and sex scandals, do not matter. Politicians’ relationships, sex scandals, and cases of sexual harassment have absolutely no influence on voting trends, or at least have no scientific evidence to support any correlation. “Elections are like the ocean,” said Schildkraut. She explained that elections are swayed and directed by a strong undercurrent composed of factors invisible to American voters. What voters see are the whitecaps, the tops of the waves that may determine where a particular wave will crash or how big of a splash the wave will make. But the whitecaps are not the driving force behind the wave. They are petty things like mudslinging, political gossip, and politicians’ romantic lives; they may affect public opinion, but they have no effect on actual voting trends.

While responders to the Tufts Observer’s survey were able to name politicians whose careers they believed were harmed and/or helped by their romantic relationships, they also responded overwhelmingly negatively to the proposition that politicians’ romantic lives influence their own personal voting tendencies. The majority of responders admitted that politicians’ romantic lives influence their own personal opinions of candidates, but rarely their votes.

If responders overwhelmingly agreed that romantic life would not influence the way they vote, how could politicians’ careers be either helped or harmed by their personal relationships? If Tufts students would still vote for a candidate regardless of the quality of their romantic relationships, then their careers cannot be affected by said relationships. There is a degree of cognitive dissonance happening in the minds of educated American voters—the conflict between wanting to vote for someone for their political views and wanting to vote for someone for their personal moral standards. Ultimately, party affiliation seems to win, no matter how despicable the scandal or act of infidelity. In politics, love does not conquer all.