Infidelity & Tolerance

03/21/2008 05:10 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A common pattern in polling is to see greater tolerance for issues in one's personal sphere than outside it. Voters like their own Member of Congress more than they like "Congress." Voters are more open to public spending helping their own community than to help others'. Call it, perhaps, a reverse NIMBY phenomenon. Interestingly, we see the same pattern when it comes to infidelity and sex scandals; Americans seem more tolerant personally than they are of elected officials.

At some level I'm hesitant to discuss this topic. Does it feed into our baser instincts? Are sex scandals even relevant? However you answer those questions, though, the fact remains that sex scandals are very relevant in the campaigns in which they occur, and show no sign of abating. We might as well try to understand voters' views.

Initially, Americans attitudes toward infidelity are quite dramatic. According to Gallup, nearly all Americans (91%) feel "married men and women having an affair" is morally wrong. This makes it less acceptable than cloning humans (86% morally wrong), and as unacceptable as polygamy (90%).

But ultimately, Americans turn out to be more forgiving. For one, according to ABC News, more report their own infidelity (16%) than I'm assuming would admit to human cloning or polygamy. Further, according to USA Today/Gallup reports of "knowing anyone" who has been unfaithful are much higher (54%).

Perceived pervasiveness could lead to potential forgiveness. Over a third (33%) say they would "probably" or "definitely" forgive their spouse's infidelity. A similar number (36%) suspect that if they were married to a philandering political spouse, they would "stand beside" the spouse during a press conference announcing the infidelity. In fact, far from a consistent pattern, only 55% of married adults say they would leave their spouse if they found out about an affair.

Politicians implicated in recent sex scandals, however, are generally not let off the hook so easily:

  • A Marist Poll pre-resignation (so, admittedly, an overnight poll) showed 70% of New York voters wanted to see Eliot Spitzer resign.

  • In September 2007, a

  • In a NBC News/Zogby poll, More than eight in ten (84%) were dissatisfied with Gary Condit's explanations about his relationship with Chandra Levy, and 81% said they wouldn't re-elect him if he was their Congressman.

Only former Governor Jim McGreevey fared a bit better than his ignominious peers. Just half (48%) of New Jersey voters said it was necessary for him to resign, compared to 42% who wanted him to stay.

Admittedly, most of these scandals, to varying degrees, involved a bit more than adultery. And the hypocrisy of private behavior differing from public stances also affects voters' attitudes. But we still seem to see reverse NIMBY writ large; people tend to be more judgmental of others than of themselves. Politicians should beware what might be one of the oldest political biases.