Purdue News

October 17, 2005

'Politics as usual' may result in guilty verdict from constituents

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. – Even if a politician is found innocent of corruption in a court of law, what is perceived as unethical behavior can result in a guilty verdict in the court of public opinion, says a Purdue University political expert.

"Politicians and government officials define corruption based on whether they are breaking the law, while citizens may think of corruptive behavior as something as simple as candidates on the campaign trail making promises specifically to influence a group of voters," says James McCann, associate professor of political science who studies public opinion. "Former majority leader and Texas Rep. Tom DeLay declares that he is not guilty of the indictments brought against him for illegal fundraising and accepting gifts. But he may still be considered 'corrupt,' at least according to how voters defined what is politically corrupt behavior in our research."

McCann teamed with David P. Redlawsk, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Iowa, to study how corruption is defined and interpreted by American voters. The researchers' article appeared in September's Political Behavior.

The research is based on survey results from a six-city exit poll following the 2000 presidential election. The people polled were from New York City; Miami; New Orleans; Kenosha, Wis.; Lafayette and West Lafayette, Ind.; and Iowa City, Iowa. The researchers determined how people defined and understood political corruption based on how they rated statements such as:

• "How corrupt would it be if someone on the government payroll did not work for the pay received?"

• "How corrupt would it be if an elected official raised campaign funds while inside his or her government office?"

• "How corrupt would it be if voters supported a candidate for office in return for a promise to fix potholes on their street?"

McCann says he was not surprised that 66.4 percent of the voting population considered a ghost employee on government payroll as extremely corrupt.

But he was surprised that 33.3 percent of the population considered an elected official raising campaign funds while in office extremely corrupt, and 22.6 percent considered a campaign promise to fix potholes to influence voters as corrupt. Neither of these behaviors is illegal, and they happen often at the federal, state and local level, McCann says.

"The founding fathers created a system that would encourage fairness and participation, but instead some constituents see 'politics as usual' as a problem," McCann says. "If that's the case, then the free, democratic processes in this country are working against themselves."

The research also found that individuals who judged illegal activities, such as taking bribes to be corrupt, were more inclined to back one of the major 2000 party candidates, George W. Bush or Al Gore. At the same time, those who believed favoritism, such as an official recommending an unemployed friend for a government job, was corrupt were more likely to vote for Gore or Ralph Nader.

"The voters who consider illegal behavior as extremely corrupt but who are not likely to consider favoritism as corrupt voted for the larger parties' candidates," McCann says. "However, some of the Gore and most of the independent candidate's supporters saw both kinds of behavior as corrupt. This split among Democratic voters should be of interest to the party as it prepares for coming elections."

McCann says more study is needed on how nonvoters view political corruption. This study was funded by the National Science Foundation, the College of Liberal Arts and Purdue's Department of Political Science.

Writer: Amy Patterson Neubert, (765) 494-9723, apatterson@purdue.edu

Source: James McCann, (765) 494-0738, mccannj@purdue.edu

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096; purduenews@purdue.edu



Popular interpretations of 'corruption'
and their partisan consequences

David P. Redlawsk and James A. McCann

Using a large six-city exit poll from 2000, we examine popular judgments of what constitutes "political corruption" in the United States. We find two distinct evaluative dimensions: corruption understood as lawbreaking and corruption as favoritism. These judgments are heavily conditioned by the voter's socioeconomic background and are politically consequential. Subjective understandings of "corruption" shape perceptions of how much corruption actually exists in government. Furthermore, and more importantly, these normative assessments play a significant part in voting decisions. Individuals who judged illegal activities such as bribe-taking to be "corrupt" were more inclined to back one of the major party candidates in 2000; those who believed that favoritism in politics was "corrupt" (e.g., an official recommending an unemployed friend for a government job) were more likely to vote for Al Gore or Ralph Nader.


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