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

  • Staffan Kumlin and Peter Esaiasson

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.

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1 Lowi, Theodore, ‘Foreword’, in A. Markovits and M. Silverstein, eds, The Politics of Scandal: Power and Process in Liberal Democracies (New York: Holmes & Meier, 1988).

2 C.f. Thompson, John, Political Scandal: Power and Visibility in the Media Age (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000).

3 E.g., Swanson, David and Mancini, Paolo, Politics, Media and Modern Democracy (New York: Praeger, 1996).

4 E.g., Altheide, David and Snow, Robert, Media Logic (New York: Sage, 1979).

5 E.g., Cook, Timothy, Governing with the News: The News Media as a Political Institution (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1998).

6 E.g., McNair, Brian, Journalism and Democracy: An Evaluation of the Political Public Sphere (London: Routledge, 2000); and Meyer, Thomas, Media Democracy: How the Media Colonize Politics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002).

7 E.g., Patterson, Thomas, Out of Order (New York: Knopf, 1993); Bennett, Lance, News: The Politics of Illusion (New York: Longman, 1996); and Capella, Joseph N. and Jamieson, Kathleen Hall, Spiral of Cynicism: The Press and the Public Good (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997).

8 Owen, Diana, ‘Popular Politics and the Clinton/Lewinsky Affair: The Implications for Leadership’, Political Psychology, 21 (2000), 161177.

9 Tumber, Howard and Waisbord, Silvio, ‘Introduction: Political Scandals and Media across Democracies. Volume I’, American Behavioral Scientist, 47 (2004), 10311039; Johansson, Bengt, Efter valstugorna. Skandalstrategier och mediemakt (University of Gothenburg: Department of Journalism and Mass Commmunication, 2006).

10 Stoker, Laura, ‘Judging Presidential Character: The Demise of Gary Hart’, Political Behavior, 15 (1993), 193223; Funk, Carolyn L., ‘The Impact of Scandal on Candidate Evaluations: An Experimental Test of the Role of Candidate Traits’, Political Behavior, 18 (1996), 124; Luís De Sousa, ‘Political Parties and Corruption in Portugal’, West European Politics, 24 (2001), 157180.

11 Clark, Michael, ‘Valence and Electoral Outcomes in Western Europe, 1976–1998’, Electoral Studies, 28 (2009), 1122; but see Maravall, José María, ‘Accountability and the Survival of Governments’, in Carles Boix and Susan C. Stokes, eds, The Oxford Handbook of Comparative Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), pp. 910939; and Tor Midtbø, Skandaler i norsk politik (Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 2007).

12 Shaun Bowler and Karp, Jeffrey A., ‘Politicians, Scandals, and Trust in Government’, Political Behavior, 26, (2004), 271287.

13 E.g., Hans-Dieter Klingemann, ‘Mapping Political Support in the 1990s: A Global Analysis’, in Pippa Norris, ed., Critical Citizens. Global Support for Democratic Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 1356; John Hibbing and Elizabeth Theiss-Morse, Stealth Democracy: Americans’ Beliefs about How Government Should Work (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002); Dalton, Russel J., Democratic Challenges, Democratic Choices: The Erosion of Political Support in Advanced Industrial Democracies (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004).

14 Anderson, Christopher J. and Tverdova, Yuliya V., ‘Corruption, Political Allegiances, and Attitudes toward Government in Contemporary Democracies’, American Journal of Political Science, 47 (2003), 91109.

15 Miller, Arthur H., ‘Sex, Politics, and Public Opinion: What Political Scientists Really Learned from the Clinton–Lewinsky Scandal’, PS: Political Science and Politics, 32 (1999), 721729.

16 Owen, ‘Popular Politics and the Clinton/Lewinsky Affair’.

17 Smyth, D. J. and Taylor, S. W., ‘Presidential Popularity: What Matters Most, Macroeconomics or Scandals?’ Applied Economics Letters, 10 (2003), 585588.

18 Bowler and Karp, ‘Politicians, Scandals, and Trust in Government’.

19 Chanley, Virginia A., Thomas J Rudolph and Wendy M Rahn, ‘The Origins and Consequences of Public Trust in Government’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 64 (2000), 239256.

20 Hans Mathias Kepplinger, ‘Skandale Und Politikverdrossenheit-Ein Langzeitvergleich’, in Otfried Jarren, Heribert Schatz and Hartmut Wessler, eds, Medien und Politischer Prozess. Politische Öffentlichkeit und Massenmediale Politikvermittlung im Wandel (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1996).

21 Friedrichsen, Mike, ‘Politik und Parteiverdruss Durch Skandalberichterstattung’, in Otfried Jarren, Heribert Schatz, and Hartmut Wessler, eds, Medien und Politischer Prozess. Politische Öffentlichkeit und Massenmediale Politikvermittlung im Wandel (Opladen: Westdeutscher Verlag, 1996), pp. 7393.

22 Henrik Oscarsson and Sören Holmberg, Regeringsskifte (Stockholm: Norstedts Juridik, 2008).

23 Isabelle Régner and Valérie Lefloch, ‘When Political Expertise Moderates the Impact of Scandals on Young Adults' Judgments of Politicians’, European Journal of Social Psychology, 35 (2005), 255261.

24 Bowler and Karp, ‘Politicians, Scandals, and Trust in Government’.

25 De Sousa, ‘Political Parties and Corruption in Portugal’. ‘PSD’ stands for the social democratic party.

26 Already in the 1970s there were calls. This is hardly a coincidence, but rather emblematic of political communication research more generally. While even in the 1970s there had been calls for more comparative research by Blumler, Jay and Gurevitch, Michael, ‘Towards a Comparative Framework for Political Communication Research’, in Steven H. Chaffee, ed., Political Communication: Issues and Strategies for Research (Beverly Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1975), pp. 165193. More recently, others have even argued that the calls have rarely been heeded, c.f. De Vreese, Claes H., ‘Television Reporting of Second-Order Elections’, Journalism Studies, 4 (2003), 183198, Hetty van Kempen, ‘Context in Political Communication: Measurement and Effects on Political Behavior’ (doctoral dissertation, University of Amsterdam, 2008); and Jesper Strömbäck and Toril Aalberg, ‘Election News Coverage in Democratic Corporatist Countries: A Comparative Study of Sweden and Norway’, Scandinavian Political Studies, 31 (2008), 92106.

27 See Friedrichsen, ‘Politik und Parteiverdruss Durch Skandalberichterstattung’; Miller, ‘Sex, Politics, and Public Opinion’; Bowler and Karp, ‘Politicians, Scandals, and Trust in Government’.

28 E.g., Miller, ‘Sex, Politics, and Public Opinion’.

29 E.g., Régner and Lefloch, ‘When Political Expertise Moderates the Impact of Scandals on Young Adults’ Judgments of Politicians’.

30 E.g., Chanley, Rudolph and Rahn, ‘The Origins and Consequences of Public Trust in Government’; Smyth and Taylor, ‘Presidential Popularity’.

31 E.g., Bowler and Karp, ‘Politicians, Scandals, and Trust in Government’.

32 E.g., Miller, ‘Sex, Politics, and Public Opinion’; Chanley, Rudolph and Rahn, ‘The Origins and Consequences of Public Trust in Government’; and Smyth and Taylor, ‘Presidential Popularity’; but see Bowler and Karp, ‘Politicians, Scandals, and Trust in Government’.

33 E.g., Anderson, Christopher J., André Blais, Shaun Bowler, Todd Donovan and Ola Listhaug, Losers’ Consent: Elections and Democratic Legitimacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

34 Ginsberg, Benjamin and Weisberg, Robert, ‘Elections and the Mobilization of Popular Support’, American Journal of Political Science, 22 (1978), 3155; Finkel, Steven E., ‘Reciprocal Effects of Participation and Political Efficacy: A Panel Analysis’, American Journal of Political Science, 29 (1985), 891913; Finkel, Steven E., ‘The Effects of Participation on Political Efficacy and Political Support: Evidence from a West German Panel’, Journal of Politics, 49 (1987), 441464; Sören Holmberg, ‘Down and Down We Go: Political Trust in Sweden’, in Pippa Norris, ed., Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999), pp. 103122; and Esaiasson, Peter, ‘Electoral Losers Revisited. How Citizens React to Defeat at the Ballot Box’, Electoral Studies, 30 (2011), 102113.

35 For a similar remark, see Kepplinger, ‘Skandale und Politikverdrossenheit-Ein Langzeitvergleich’.

36 E.g., Shanto Iyengar and Kinder, Donald R., News that Matters. Television and American Opinion (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1987).

37 See Schmitt, Hermann et al. , ‘The Mannheim Eurobarometer Trendfile 1970–2002; Data Set Edition 2.00’ (2005), available from

38 Norris, Pippa, ed., Critical Citizens: Global Support for Democratic Governance (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999).

39 Easton, David, ‘A Re-Assessment of the Concept of Political Support’, British Journal of Political Science, 5 (1975), 435457.

40 Canache, Damarys, Mondak, Jeffery and Seligson, Mitchell, ‘Meaning and Measurement in Cross-National Research on Satisfaction with Democracy’, Public Opinion Quarterly, 65 (2001), 506528; Linde, Jonas and Ekman, Joakim, ‘Satisfaction with Democracy: A Note on a Frequently Used Indicator in Comparative Politics’, European Journal of Political Research, 42 (2003), 391408.

41 Klingemann, ‘Mapping Political Support in the 1990s’; Anderson, Christopher J., ‘Good Questions, Dubious Inferences, and Bad Solutions: Some Further Thoughts on Satisfaction with Democracy’ (Working Paper No. 116, Center on Democratic Performance Binghamton University, 2002); André Blais and Francois Gélineau, ‘Winning, Losing, and Satisfaction with Democracy’, Political Studies, 55 (2007), 425441.

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).

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); Steenbergen, Marco R. and Jones, Bradford S., ‘Modeling Multilevel Data Structures’, American Journal of Political Science, 46, (2002), 218237.

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’.

60 Hanna Bäck and Axel Hadenius, ‘Democracy and State Capacity: Exploring a JShaped relationship’, Governance, 21, (2008), 124.

61 Peter Esaiasson and Sören Holmberg, Representation from Above. Members of Parliament and Representative Democracy in Sweden (Aldershot: Dartmouth, 1996).

* Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg and Institute for Social Research, Oslo (email: ). This research was supported by Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and Swedish Council for Working Life and Social Research. Previous versions were presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association, Boston, 2008; at the Department of Political Science, University of Gothenburg; at the Institute for Social Research, Oslo; at the Swedish Collegium for Advanced Study; and at the Department of Political Science, University of Oslo. The authors wish to thank Anders Sundell for excellent research assistance, and Bernt Aardal, Linda Berg, Johannes Bergh, Jonas Edlund, Henning Finseraas, Mikael Hjerm, Paul Gronke, Rune Karlsen, Ingemar Johansson-Sevä, Maria Oskarson, Maria Solevid, Jo Saglie, Marcus Samanni and Stefan Svallfors for useful comments.

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Supplementary Appendix

Kumlin Supplementary Appendix
Appendix B: List of Election Scandals 1977-2007

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