Wednesday, the New York Times Magazine did a favor to the headline writers guild, breaking the news that former Congressman Anthony Weiner is seriously considering a run for mayor of New York City. (The Post Thursday morning: “Weiner’s Second Coming.”) A week earlier, the similarly disgraced Mark Sanford won a Republican Congressional runoff in South Carolina, all but cementing his return to public office. The sudden viability of both candidates would appear somewhat surprising. They are, as the tabloids might put it, damaged goods. Sanford, the former governor of South Carolina, resigned in 2009 after copping to an affair with an Argentinean woman. Weiner followed suit in 2011, after he was caught sending naughty selfies to complete strangers, while his wife was pregnant.
It would seem such scandals would be an impediment to electoral success. But in American politics, sex scandals not only do little to damage, but can in fact allow candidates to catapult themselves to an even more exalted, redeemed, state. If Weiner and Sanford lose, it won’t because of scandal. If they win, they might have their own transgressions to thank.
In October 1974, powerful Georgia Congressman Wilbur Mills was pulled over at 2 a.m. near the National Mall, in Washington, D.C., drunk driving with the stripper Fanne Foxe, who proceeded to run away and jump into the Tidal Basin. Mills won re-election a month later. Massachusetts Congressman Barney Frank was re-elected 11 times after a gay prostitution scandal surfaced in the late 1980s. Louisiana Senator David Vitter was elected in 2004 after denying claims he solicited prostitutes, and then won again in 2010, after coming clean.
These are not outliers. A 2012 study by University of Houston political scientist Scott Basinger tracked all 237 Congressional scandals that have taken place since Watergate, in 1973. Though Basinger found that scandals—sexual and otherwise—indeed shaved off about five percentage points of an incumbent’s electoral performance, 81 percent of scandal-tainted incumbents still won re-election if they sought office.
But candidates like Sanford and Weiner are in even better shape than Wilbur Mills or Barney Frank, because by having disappeared for a while they’ve positioned themselves for comebacks. Not only does political science suggest that time heals all wounds after scandal, but fallen pols have something less quantifiable going for them too.
America’s deep strain of born-againism seems to have made a smooth transition to the political arena. For one, a fallen candidate is a deeply relatable one. George W. Bush, a recovered alcoholic and born-again Christian himself, was able to connect with wide swath of voters, especially compared to his sanctimonious opponents, Al Gore and John Kerry. The Gennifer Flowers allegations did not fell Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign, and he’s only gained in popularity since the Lewinsky scandal. (His accusers’ vituperativeness during the impeachment proceedings only helped him.) Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, ironically, have suffered from the opposite problem. Private, insular, and by all accounts morally upstanding, both have been accused of being distant, cold, or unapproachable.
More importantly, moral failure not only renders public figures more human, it gives them a chance to redeem themselves. Take the 2012 South Carolina primary, in which known philanderer Newt Gingrich defeated not only Romney, but deeply religious Rick Santorum. Sixty-five percent of the electorate was Evangelical, and Gingrich won that cohort handily. Why? Just listen to what supporter Deeni Everyly said at the time:
He’s asked for forgiveness, he’s received forgiveness from God so he’s received my forgiveness. I believe if you truly look at your own self, if you—whoever has no sin, throw the first stone at him.
Having fooled around and abandoned two ailing wives not only didn’t hurt Gingrich, but it may have helped him. For without sin, there is no chance at redemption. And what kind of a moving political narrative is that?
Like Gingrich, Weiner and Sanford have decided not to shy away from their scandals. Both underwent their own “dark” periods of quiet rehabilitation, before deciding to go quite public, gushing on about self-discovery and reflection in vaguely spiritual, if not religious terms. Since hitting the campaign trail, Sanford has been talking like a new-age guru, using terms like “shared human experience,” and “odyssey,” while being awkwardly open about his “failings as a human being”:
Unless you’ve felt pain at some level of life, whether it’s self-imposed or otherwise, I don’t think you have the same level of empathy for people who have gone through some level of suffering. I empathize with people at a level that I never did before in part because of some pain in my own life.
South Carolina Republican voters, it seems, have empathized right back. Weiner, meanwhile, after nearly two years in the shadows, has now unveiled his own T.M.I. redemption song, by opening up in a sprawling New York Times Magazine cover story. The author of the piece, Jonathan Van Meter, wrote that interviewing Weiner felt less like journalism and more like therapy:
I startled myself that day when, after two hours of listening while he unburdened himself, I heard these words come out of my mouth: “Maybe we should stop there for now.”
In order to gauge his chances for the mayor’s race, Weiner spent $100,000 on polling, asking presumptive voters if they could forgive him. Said Weiner of the results: “There was this sense of ‘Yeah, he made a mistake. Let’s give him a second chance.’ But only on the condition that he had learned something from the mistake.”
Sanford has been very forthcoming about his mistakes and his deep love for his former mistress, Maria Belen Chapur, with whom he has remained. Weiner, as the glossy Times Magazine photographs suggest, has resuscitated his marriage, toddler in tow. By sharing their rehabilitated images with the rest of us, Weiner and Sanford seem to have indeed learned something.