UH Study: Politicians Behaving Badly

Political Science Researchers Dissect Political Scandals of Late 20th Century

As New York Gov. David Paterson recovers from recent controversy, University of Houston political science professors Scott Basinger and Brandon Rottinghaus work to quantify and classify scandals of the late 20th century.

In "Stonewalling: Explaining Behavior During Presidential Scandals," Basinger and Rottinghaus examine the defensive strategies of presidential communication. Their research shows that the White House is more likely to stonewall, or deflect the issue, when the scandal involves the president or his cabinet rather than a presidential nominee. Other significant findings define the conditions under which a president will stonewall, as well as the implications for political accountability.

"How common are political scandals, and are all scandals alike?" asked Rottinghaus. "The answers to these questions and others are found in the data we've compiled through our research. Our goal is to better understand the causes, consequences and strategies involved in some of the most notorious scandals in American political history."

Armed with a comprehensive database of presidential political scandals from 1972 to 2008, Basinger and Rottinghaus are able to identify trends and tactics employed in damage control. According to their research, presidents of the United States and/or staff (executive office cabinet members, appointees, nominees or campaign staff) were involved in 84 political scandals resulting from 141 accusations during that time. Although these predictive models were applied to cases of presidents involved in scandal, the predictions from these formal models can also be applied to other scandals involving governors, members of Congress and celebrities.

"The grouping of unique scandals and lies can tell us much more about the nature of these events," said Basinger. "These patterns and trends help to inform our understanding about the degree to which government is more open and accountable to the public."

By classifying scandals by the type of controversy, target of investigation, length of time and response strategy, the team of researchers is able to pinpoint the most common traits and factors of each. Preliminary research results indicate that most scandals are financial in origin and involve a presidential appointee rather than higher administration officials. Additionally, financial scandals are less enduring than purely political scandals.

For more information on the UH department of political science visit http://www.polsci.uh.edu.