“STPs.” That stands for stranglers, thieves and pedophiles. “STPs” was the political shorthand used at Republican Party headquarters in October to describe the ten scandal-ridden seats (all of whom lost). Stranglers? Yes, there was more than one: Don Sherwood and John Sweeney (lesson to politicians — don’t beat your wife or your mistress). Thieves? There were multiple examples of thieves. But there was only one pedophile, and he became the face of nearly everything voters were unhappy about with the Republican Party. In the October NBC/WSJ poll, Mark Foley had 69 percent unfavorables — showing he had more negative juice than O.J. Simpson (62 percent negatives) and in the same Neverland stratosphere as Michael Jackson (72 percent unfavorables).
Underscoring how seared into America’s consciousness the Foley scandal is, it’s been more than two months since the story broke, and more than a month since Republicans were booted out of power in Congress, but Mr. Foley is still a staple of jokes by late night television hosts. But Mr. Foley did not just provide months of easy laughs for jokewriters. Nor did he just cost Republicans his seat. Instead, he took a struggling political party and made things worse. Much, much worse. The Republican Party’s image went from a weak 37 percent favorable/44 percent unfavorable to a horrendous 32 percent favorable/49 percent unfavorable. That’s a net swing of ten points from late September to mid-October. Our national polling in December shows that the Republican Party has yet to start digging out of the Foley wreckage.
Our polling conducted on election night shows that Mr. Foley was a bigger factor in the vote decision process than Jack Abramoff (the star player in the “thieves” of the STP equation). But Mr. Foley didn’t just hurt the Republican Party’s overall image. The scandal stalled many campaigns, diverted resources from other campaigns and, after two years of bad news, provided one last punch to the gut of Republican efforts to hold the House.
One Republican incumbent, Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico, was one of the Democrats’ top targets. She was ahead by just two points pre-Foley. The story broke, and she dropped to a ten point deficit. The list of incumbents who have come back from double digit deficits in October to win is very short in the modern era of campaigns. The aggressive Wilson campaign strategy, coupled with her opponent’s pathetic debate performance, allowed Mrs. Wilson to win by just over 800 votes… but it was a difficult task made harder because of the Foley scandal. There are other examples of precipitous GOP drops — some of whom survived, some of whom did not.
Open-ended comments on our surveys show that voters punished Republicans because they are unhappy about Iraq and also felt that the GOP was not focused on key issues because we were distracted by corruption. The problem with the Foley scandal was the larger picture of GOP leadership that it reinforced. Republicans lost control of Congress and many state houses not because Republicans did not turn out. Instead, the party did an incredible job of turnout. We did not lose because Republicans defected. We lost because we got creamed among independent voters. They have grown tired of trying to figure out whether the GOP’s handling of challenges like Hurricane Katrina and the Foley scandal were intentional malfeasance or inability to get the job done.
Neither explanation is satisfactory. Voters believe either House Speaker Denny Hastert looked the other way intentionally to keep power, or that leadership is lacking focus on what was clearly a major problem. There is a trust gap between many swing voters and the GOP. However, there are a lot of Americans who wonder, and plenty also believe that Mr. Hastert looked the other way on the Foley scandal. We don’t believe that either, but self-inflicted wound after self-inflicted wound starts to take a toll.
Political parties are very resilient. Being out of power focuses the mind on getting back on a winning streak. The GOP’s number-one challenge is to show voters that we have learned our lessons from our less-than-deft handling of recent challenges like Katrina and Foley, and show more moral leadership when faced with challenges. Voters rewarded the Republicans for bold leadership shown in the aftermath of the challenge of September 11. Instead of living off those days, it is time for Republicans to provide proof to a skeptical America that we’re less like the party that mishandled the Mark Foley scandal and more like the party that dealt decisively with September 11.
Glen Bolger and Bill McInturff are partners in Public Opinion Strategies, a political and public affairs survey research company.