Why does Cain’s sex life matter politically while Gingrich’s does not?

Sex, lies, and the fight for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination

Herman Cain, after rising in the polls, has been hit with claims of sexual harassment, followed by statements from a woman who said they had a thirteen year long affair. The evidence seems to be piling up that they had a close relationship.

With Newt Gingrich appearing to be gaining as Cain falls, the question that’s been asked is how this could be.

After all, Gingrich is now on his third wife, having had two divorces.

Even more, Gingrich had an affair with the woman to whom he is currently married while he was championing the impeachment of President Clinton on charges that grew out of Clinton’s relationship with Ms. Lewinsky.

Understanding the difference requires looking at modes of decision-making, using knowledge from cognitive and political psychology:

* Few people knew Herman Cain until quite recently. Thus their evaluations were based on little information. Since his policy platform is thin and his political experience negligible, their assessments were based on his temperament and what they knew of his character. 

The new information about Cain thus can have a strong impact on voters’ evaluations.

* In contrast, Newt Gingrich has a long history with voters. Moreover, they have long known about his complex personal life and his affair with his now-third wife.  This information is already factored in to their evaluations. Thus, when they look at him again in the context of the field of candidates, it takes a background to other information, such as his ability to articulate positions. 

One more thing:

You may be asking, if this theory is true, how did Bill Clinton survive charges of infidelity when they came up during the 1992 nominating battle? 

One reason Clinton survived is that he was not as much of a newcomer as Cain. He had devoted much time campaigning already, so voters in, say New Hampshire, had heard from him. They had experienced his remarkable capacity to connect to voters and to explain complex ideas with detail and clarity.

He also was not a political neophyte with a campaign staff that has seemed to lack competence, so his response was swifter and better-formed.

Although Clinton faced various character issues, his campaign responded by telling voters about aspects of his personal life they did not know that humanized him and told the story of his childhood struggles and his family life with his wife and child.

Clinton’s political identity was based around having a plan for the country, one that would help regular people.

Ultimately, as political scientist Samuel Popkin wrote in (a truly wonderful work of political science called) The Reasoning Voter:

[P]eople learned enought about Clinton from the campaign to judge him positively on the basis of his economic plan and his political character; This evolution in voters’ perceptions of Clinton suggests that the best way to fight charges or problems against a candidate’s character during a campaign is to provide additional information about other aspects of his or her character, in order to give voters the fullest possible picture.

Clinton did not do away with voters’ concerns about his alleged adultery, draft evasion, or his tendency to try to please everyone. But he did convince many of them that he could nonetheless bring about change and that his plan was worth trying. Regardless of whether he had inhaled, he had a plan.

Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.