Why your candidate is corrupt and mine isn't

Partisan charges of political corruption have flared around the edges of the 2014 Texas elections, yet they haven’t become the focus of media coverage in the marquee races or fundamentally changed their dynamics or our expectations of the outcomes in November.

Why is it that intimations of corruption and political malfeasance stay in our peripheral vision while rarely coming into the kind of Sharpstown-like spotlight that defines an election?

The reasons for both the durability of intimations of corruption and the seemingly contradictory failure of these intimations to rise above other campaign issues can be found in patterns of public opinion. Polling shows that many Texans do think that corruption is a problem — but they see the problem through a partisan lens. To a partisan voter, claims of the “other side’s” malfeasance are readily heard and accepted; they reinforce predispositions and may even help inspire action (you’ve probably received some emails to this effect). But the same kinds of claims about one’s own candidate, filtered through the same dispositions, are quickly discarded as another example of partisan politics.

The result is that barring a major scandal, accusations meant to brand candidates as corrupt end up becoming just another part of the partisan back-and-forth, validated or rejected based on voters’ partisan predispositions.

Looking back over three years of University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling data, between 7 and 15 percent of Texans regularly select political corruption/leadership as the most important problem facing the country, with an uptick over the past two years. These national assessments are structured by partisanship. As President Obama has become more closely associated with the federal government, Republicans have grown more likely than Democrats to view corruption as the most important problem facing the country. In June 2013, 19 percent of Republicans chose corruption over any other issue, while only 8 percent of Democrats made the same choice.  

In assessing the issues facing Texas, political corruption regularly registers just under 10 percent of the electorate’s choice. At the state level, partisan differences are even more apparent, a likely result of Republican control over every statewide office and both chambers of the Legislature. In our most recent poll, only 2 percent of Republicans said political corruption/leadership was the most important problem facing the state, but one in five Democrats said this was the most important problem. Taken together, perceptions of corruption, like most things, hinge on partisanship. In that same June 2014 poll, when asked which gubernatorial candidate they trusted more on the issue of ethics in government, 65 percent of Democrats and 77 percent of liberals chose Democrat Wendy Davis; 80 percent of Republicans and 77 percent of conservatives chose Republican Greg Abbott.

Thus, candidates can be sure that a faction of partisans remains ready to accept charges of the opposing candidate’s malfeasance before they hear specifics. In the artless language of the social sciences, we call this “confirmation bias”: the tendency to favor arguments that support one’s pre-existing beliefs, and to eschew arguments that contradict those beliefs.

While this confirmation bias may help reinforce partisan predispositions, it’s unlikely to alter the partisan composition of the electorate. So why do campaigns continually focus on the corruption or malfeasance of the other side? One reason is temptation — the possibility that with a single action they might, just might, be able to disqualify an opponent. The other, less sexy reason is that campaigns don’t want to be caught sitting on their hands while enduring a public tarring and feathering. In the end, both sides of a campaign usually argue that the other is corrupt, and the effect on the election outcome is a wash. The seemingly structural consequence of this tit-for-tat strategy is the recurring feeling that corruption is always an emerging issue in every election.

Real questions provide the raw material for this perception in the current election cycle. At the top of the list is attorney general candidate Ken Paxton’s running afoul of securities laws. But the governor’s race has provided plenty of its own examples, ranging from Davis’ proximity to an FBI investigation of her law firm’s involvement in transportation contracts in North Texas to Abbott’s proximity to the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute of Texas’ financial mismanagement, as well as — most recently — contributions to Abbott from donors with matters related to his job as attorney general.

Yet however much partisans may seize on one of the examples above, neither campaign seems poised to break through the dynamics of partisan perceptions that both fuel and limit corruption's potential as a campaign strategy. Talk of corruption is hardly new to this cycle — but neither is the fizzling of expectations that it will be decisive. Corruption, packaged as “cronyism,” was widely seen as Gov. Rick Perry’s key vulnerability in 2010, but it never materialized as a fatal issue for him in either his hard-fought primary against Kay Bailey Hutchison or the general election against Bill White. Cronyism was even raised again in Perry’s unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign. As it turned out, Perry’s failure there had nothing to do with charges of corruption and everything to do with how he failed to capitalize on his moment of opportunity, however transitory — a lesson likely to be repeated in the 2014 races.

This piece originally appeared in TribTalk.