Political Scandals - When do Voters Condemn Politicians?

09/12/2011 23:27 | Updated 08 February 2012

Writing for YouGov-Cambridge

People are rarely objective. This is particularly true when it comes to what we think of politics and politicians. As much as we would want to be model democratic citizens who carefully consider political debates, our opinions are often developed quickly and instinctively rather than through an unbiased evaluation of the facts.

That we think this way has been known to psychologists for a long time. They argue that our political views are the result of a process they call 'motivated reasoning'. This means that when we develop an opinion on a political matter, such as tax cuts or NHS reforms, we have specific motivations in mind, often unconsciously.

One such motivation could be the desire to reach an accurate conclusion: we often want our opinions to be correct and true. Ideal democratic citizens, in their quest for careful, reasoned opinions, would be motivated by such a desire. But that is not our only motivation in forming opinions. Often, we also want to form an opinion that is consistent with our other, pre-existing views. This means that we don't want to reach the right conclusion: we want to reach the preferred conclusion.

Forming careful opinions about politics and politicians can be difficult and time-consuming. An easier way to form a view is to use a shortcut, for example our pre-existing opinions and loyalties. Interpreting new events and information in light of our pre-existing opinions and biases also means that we don't have to rearrange all our political opinions in the face of new events or information. Cognitively, using shortcuts is therefore clearly attractive, especially if we don't want to spend a lot of time or energy on a topic.

Voters use these shortcuts when they think about politics. For many, politics is exactly the kind of topic we don't want to spend a lot of time thinking about, which makes shortcuts even more attractive. If I like a politician, then I will also want to think that the policies he or she supports are good; if I strongly dislike that politician, my motivation and instinct will be to dismiss those very same policies.

Such motivated reasoning pervades how we react to political scandals. Scandals are part of political life in any democracy, and often the media circus that ensues concentrates on one question: will the politician resign?

How would we want the ideal democratic citizen to answer that question? They should collect and ponder the available information and then arrive at a reasoned conclusion regarding the guilt of the politician and the severity of his or her wrongdoing. They can then decide whether the politician's wrongdoing merits resignation or not.

Of course, this is not what happens. When voters are confronted with scandals, they are not 'blank slates'. Instead, they often have an opinion about the politician already - think of how voters reacted to the scandals that engulfed Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett or John Prescott. These prior views will colour and shape how voters react to the scandal. Well-liked politicians will be given more leeway than those who are already disliked and mistrusted.

Even if the politician is not especially high profile, voters will know which party the politician belongs to. Strong Labour supporters already know what they think about Conservative politicians in general - and it's not good. But this is mirrored by what Conservative loyalists think about 'their' politicians. These party loyalties will also shape how we react to revelations about scandals.

But which of the two motivations dominate how we form opinions? We tested how much these twin motivations - reaching an impartial conclusion and reaching the preferred conclusion - influence voter opinions on scandals. We did so in May 2011 as part of a larger YouGov survey with 1937 respondents. We asked about three scandals involving David Laws, Chris Huhne and Ken Clarke respectively.

These scandals were, of course, all very different. David Laws was accused of over-claiming on expenses, Chris Huhne of putting pressure on his ex-wife to take responsibility for a traffic violation, and Ken Clarke allegedly downplayed the seriousness of rape as a crime. These differences were noticed by voters: of those respondents who had heard of the scandals, 79% thought David Laws was right to resign, 62% said Chris Huhne should resign and only 34% thought the same about Ken Clarke.

Despite these differences, our findings concerning what determines voter opinions are remarkably consistent across these scandals. On the one hand, voters are motivated by the desire to reach an impartial conclusion. We show this by comparing two things: first, voters' overall views on what is and what is not acceptable in political life and, second, their opinion on whether each politician's actions warranted resignation.

Across all three scandals, people's general normative ethical standards strongly predict what they think about each politician. For example, if a typical respondent went from a moderately tolerant to a moderately tough normative position the probability of saying the politician should resign increased by between 11% (Laws), 22% (Huhne) and 25% (Clarke).

On the other hand, voters are just as clearly motivated by the desire to reach a preferred conclusion. We show this looking at how voter opinions on each scandal depend on their loyalty to a particular party. These loyalties were measured before the scandals occurred. Our findings are clear: people are more forgiving of wrongdoing if the politician is from the party they are loyal to and less forgiving if the politician is from a rival party.

We find that Liberal Democrat supporters are more likely than Labour supporters to think that David Laws and Chris Huhne did not need to resign. For Laws, Labour supporters were 12% more likely to think Laws should have resigned than Liberal Democrat supporters; the equivalent value for the Huhne scandal was 17%. We find the same pattern for Ken Clarke when comparing Conservative and Labour supporters: Labour supporters were 20% more likely to think Clarke should resign than Conservative identifiers.

These models all control for other important influences on voter opinions on scandals such as their trust in people, their interest in and knowledge about politics, and their age, gender and social class.

Our findings show that when we react to a scandal we do so not just based on how normatively wrong the behaviour is considered to be. We also react to it based on what we already think about the politician and his or her party, and this affects our opinions just as much as our normative beliefs. This is, of course, bad news for a party or politician whose standing is already low in the polls. More simply put: Liberal Democrat politicians will have little natural support amongst voters if they are caught up in a scandal.

Perhaps it's not possible to prevent ourselves from thinking and reacting in these ways to political events. But it helps to be aware of our biases and instincts, both in understanding our own reactions as well as those of voters more generally.

The full version of this article can be found here.