Implications of political scandals are many and far reaching. To politicians, being embroiled in scandal could have career-ending consequences. To their parties, it could mean organizational upheaval and loss of public support. To the public, a loss of faith in the individuals and systems that govern us. How then does a sitting president of the United States get re-elected for an additional four years right on the heels of an extensively reported extramarital affair and impeachment trial, like in the case of Bill Clinton? Or become elected into the position in the first place after sexist comments made come to light, like in the case of Donald Trump? Research shows that partisanship goes a long way in motivating forgiveness in voters, so much so that they would even be willing to look past behavior that they might otherwise find personally offensive or insulting (Lee et. al., 2023).


Researchers examined this phenomenon in real time, in the wake of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s blackface scandal of 2019. Despite photographs of the incumbent in blackface makeup at an Arabian Nights party surfacing in the midst of his re-election campaign, Trudeau was voted in for a second term. The study found that not only do partisan motivations, particularly when attachments to the offending party are strong, make it more likely that voters will forgive same-party scandals, but also that voters who might otherwise feel personally affected or insulted by the scandal actually experience greater levels of cognitive dissonance in order to forgive the offending party. The study also found that this tendency for forgiveness becomes particularly pronounced in high stakes circumstances such as elections, showing that voters will go to great lengths to overlook a candidate’s behavior if it ensures that their party stays in power.


So, why does this happen? The authors suggest that people are motivated by two types of goals when processing information about political scandals: accuracy goals and directional goals. Accuracy goals refer to the consideration of relevant information to arrive at a correct conclusion. Directional goals refer to the consideration of relevant information to arrive at a conclusion in line with prior attitudes and beliefs. This directional reasoning causes voters to disregard, reject or reinterpret unfavorable information to reduce their cognitive dissonance and forgive easily. It additionally causes voters to judge scandal on the side of an opposing political party more harshly as compared to a same-party scandal. Accusations of scandal towards a preferred party are also viewed as “less credible, less serious, and less concerning than other-party accusations” (Lee et. al., 2023).



APA Citation:

Lee, A. H. Y., Harell, A., Stephenson, L. B., Rubenson, D., & Loewen, P. J. (2023). Motivated to forgive? partisan scandals and Party supporters. Political Psychology