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Scandal Fatigue? Scandal Elections and Satisfaction with Democracy in Western Europe, 1977–2007

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  19 September 2011


Elections involving a major scandal were unusual in the late 1970s, but today nearly half are so affected. Multilevel analyses of Eurobarometer data reveal that scandal elections once had negative net effects on satisfaction with democracy. However, as scandals have become more common, the negative effect has withered away. This ‘scandal fatigue’ process appears driven by changes in scandal material, rather than by changes in citizens’ reactions to a given type of material. Scandals involving several politicians and parties still really matter, but these have not become markedly more common. The possibility that the increasing incidence of scandals has created a more critical approach to scandal material is discussed. As scandals accumulate, citizens may become more prone to ponder the relevance of a story and the motives of the messenger.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2011

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42 More exactly, the study covers elections with reports published at the latest in 2007. Elections reported later are not included.

43 This assumption was validated by the estimates of alternative versions of multilevel models (Models 2 and 3), which included one dummy variable for ‘one-journal’ scandal elections and another dummy for ‘two-journal’ scandal elections. Only two-journal scandal elections have significant effects.

44 These were: ‘Political Scandals and Causes Celebres since 1945: An International Reference Compendium (1991)’; and ‘Political Scandals and Media across Democracies, Volume I and II’, two special issues of American Behavioral Scientist (2004); see also Tumber and Waisbord, ‘Introduction’; and Garrard, John and Newell, James, eds, Scandals in Past and Contemporary Politics (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2006)Google Scholar.

45 The scandal election rate was 34 per cent for West European Politics (N = 151) and 36 per cent for Electoral Studies (N = 116).

46 The statistics relate to scandals reported in whichever journal provided the largest N.

47 For the subcategorization, it is required that at least one journal mentions a multiparty scandal for the election to be classified in that category. Absent such scandals, it is enough that one journal mentions multipolitician scandals for the election to be classified in that category.

48 Satisfaction with democracy was not included in all Eurobarometer surveys. However, 86 per cent of respondents included in Table 1 were surveyed in the Eurobarometer survey that followed immediately in the subsequent half-year. None were surveyed later than in the fourth post-election Eurobarometer. Analyses show that effects of scandal elections are not weaker among those few respondents who were surveyed later than in the subsequent half-year.

49 The empirical window provided by Table 1 is smaller than previous analyses both in terms of space and time. As for space, it is necessarily restricted to the European Union countries that have been surveyed with some regularity by the Eurobarometer. As for time, it covers only elections until spring 2001, because satisfaction with democracy is included for the last time in the autumn of that same year. Finally, the time period starts in 1981 as the analysis draws on information provided by both journals.

50 Respondents who are not interviewed in conjunction with an election are not included in the analysis. The general reason is that adding them introduces variation in independent variables that our data do not allow us to control. Most importantly, while election reports pin specific scandals to election campaigns, they rarely, if ever, pin them to specific dates or periods. This is true also for the many election scandals that initially come to light between elections. In other words, although the cumulative Eurobarometer file provides data on satisfaction with democracy also in non-election contexts, there is only reliable information about the presence of scandals at election time.

51 Multilevel modes were estimated using STATA's ‘xtmixed’ command.

52 Hox, Joop, Multilevel Analysis (Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum, 2002)Google Scholar; Steenbergen, Marco R. and Jones, Bradford S., ‘Modeling Multilevel Data Structures’, American Journal of Political Science, 46, (2002), 218237CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

53 The results in Figure 2, as well as more detailed inspection of the cumulative variable, imply that an overall measure of chronological time would be less than optimal when testing for scandal priming and fatigue.

54 Three variables emphasized by past research – postmaterialist values, macroeconomic perceptions and general media use – are available but only for certain periods. We decided against using them as their inclusion would severely shorten the time frame, reduce the number of countries, and generally result in a data loss of one-third (postmaterialism), close to half (media use) or more than half (economic evaluations). It should be noted, however, that some of the variation in postmaterialism and economic evaluations is picked up by the joint inclusion of age, year and unemployment controls. Moreover, we decided against controlling for political orientations that are conceptually close to satisfaction with democracy such as the strength of party attachment. Such orientations may constitute legitimate causal paths for scandal election effects. While such mechanisms are interesting in themselves this article is mainly concerned with the extent of, and explanations for, ‘total’ scandal election effects.

55 Hox, Multilevel Analysis. The Mannheim Eurobarometer trend file contains covers mainly the EU15 countries. However, in the multivariate analysis we end up with 14 countries, as Sweden does not have valid information on all the included variables.

56 Year is needed to discover that also cumulative election history seems to matter. Its negative coefficient is initially masked by a positive time trend in the data. The trend is partly due to the fact that high-satisfaction countries, such as Sweden, Finland and Austria, became EU (barometer) members at a later stage and that low-satisfaction countries, such as Italy and Belgium, were already in the data to begin with. While this ‘trend’ is not very substantively interesting, one needs to control for it in order to discover the moderately negative effect of number of past scandal elections.

57 We have also performed additional tests with additional performance indicators (election level), such as growth in gross domestic production. However, this is not shown in the table as growth is insignificant when we have controlled for unemployment and life satisfaction. The macro data used for Model 4 were taken from the Quality of Government Institute's Social Policy Data Set, see Marcus Samanni, Jan Teorell, Staffan Kumlin and Bo Rothstein, The Quality of Government Institute Social Policy Data Set (Gothenburg: University of Gothenburg, 2008, available at,). In turn, this dataset draws annual unemployment levels from OECD data, as taken from Klaus Armingeon et al., Comparative Political Data Set 1960–2006 (Institute of Political Science, University of Berne, 2008), and growth levels from Eurostat ( and ‘Penn World Table’, in Alan Heston, Robert Summers and Bettina Aten, Penn World Table Version 6.1 (Center for International Comparisons at the University of Pennsylvania, CICUP, October 2002). For electoral systems, we used information from Matt Golder, ‘Democratic Electoral Systems around the World’, Electoral Studies, 24 (2005), 103–21.

58 To facilitate comparison with Table 1, we continue to analyse only elections with two reports here.

59 Miller, ‘Sex, Politics, and Public Opinion’.

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Supplementary material: File

Kumlin Supplementary Appendix

Appendix B: List of Election Scandals 1977-2007

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