Political Fallout Of Sanford Admission Examined

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford admitted he had been having an affair with a woman from Argentina and resigned as chairman of the Republican Governors Association. What is the political fallout from the revelation?

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Governor Sanford's announcement was carried live on cable channels and likely brought him far wider fame than he's enjoyed up to now, but in political circles Sanford was well-known as a strong conservative on social and economic issues, and as we've heard, he was considered a potential presidential contender in 2012.

Joining us to discuss the implications of today's revelation is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. Ron, what's next for Mark Sanford?

RON ELVING: The first question is whether he remains governor of South Carolina. Today he stopped short of answering that question. He did resign as chairman of the Republican Governors Association, but that's a sideline. If he wants the privacy and time to heal that he says he wants, he's probably going to have to leave the governorship to have a little bit of either.

SIEGEL: And as for his national ambitions, you can forget about that now, you think?

ELVING: It seems that would be gone. He is joining a long list of other people whose personal lives did not survive the scrutiny that comes with any show of national ambition. This is a guy who's an Eagle Scout. He's had a reputation as a straight shooter. He was much admired among conservatives, partly for refusing $700 million in stimulus funds from the federal government this spring, but all the way back to the '90s, he was one of the 1994 Gingrich revolution babies. He said he would only serve three terms. He served his three and he left and he went back to South Carolina.

So he has had a lot of admirers. He was the favorite among social conservatives, as well, with all those great-looking family pictures and so forth. There's going to be a big disappointment factor.

SIEGEL: Yeah, there's a great contrast here between the image of perfection that Governor Sanford had projected and his admission of fall from grace today. That would compound his problems with at least the impression of great hypocrisy.

ELVING: That's right. Hypocrisy is always the word that comes up. People say it's not what he did, it was the way he lied about her, the way he concealed it. And the real problem, of course, is the thing that he did. And the real problem is he had to go out of the state under these clouded circumstances, shrouded circumstances, lying about where he was. And this was true with Governor Spitzer in New York about a year ago - a man who had prosecuted prostitution rings got caught up in a prostitution ring.

SIEGEL: And their clients, especially.

ELVING: And there we have it. And Senator John Ensign earlier this month out in Nevada, you know, having been a big paragon of family values.

SIEGEL: Now, you mentioned John Ensign, who was also, at least on the long list of Republicans, talked about for a national office in 2012. Is the Republican Party seeing that list of upcoming stars getting shorter?

ELVING: Yes, although there's certainly lots of time to add new names to that list, and we're still going to see active campaigns from a lot of the people whose names we know. Tim Pawlenty is not running for another term as governor in Minnesota, but I think he's still interested in national office. Bobby Jindal, although he had an unfortunate introduction to the national scene in his response to the President's State of the Union earlier this year, I think we'll still hear from him. Sarah Palin, certainly. While she's been controversial, her numbers among Republicans are still sky high.

SIEGEL: Very high approval ratings, right.

ELVING: Among the people who will be choosing the next nominee. But the guy I'd have to say is really doing the best among the Republicans right now is the one who's been staying out of the limelight, and that's former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney.

SIEGEL: And who has a very strong image of being a very, very straight arrow in his personal life.

ELVING: A straight arrow and a guy who got an overhaul of the health care system done in the state of Massachusetts.

SIEGEL: Thank you, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Ron Elving.

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After Sanford's Affair, Putting A Price On Adultery

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford

Count the cost: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford faced public censure after admitting to an extramarital affair. Photo illustration by NPR's Lindsay Powell. Images by Davis Turner/Getty Images and iStockPhoto hide caption

itoggle caption Photo illustration by NPR's Lindsay Powell. Images by Davis Turner/Getty Images and iStockPhoto

Don't Cheat Yourself

Understand the economy ...

The Republican Party in South Carolina this week voted to censure Gov. Mark Sanford for his extramarital affair with an Argentine woman but stopped short of a formal call for his resignation.

Sanford's marital infidelity may not have cost him his job, but it certainly was a costly choice.

This is the kind of human decision economists love to study. Tim Harford, author of the Dear Economist advice column in the Financial Times, points to an economic model that can help make rational sense of what's usually an emotional issue. The model appears in a paper called An Economic Theory of Extramarital Affairs (PDF) by Ray Fair of Yale, and it focuses on how much time it takes to conduct an affair.

"This must be one of the things that weighs on your mind a lot," Harford says. "And if you're a busy person, like, say, the governor of South Carolina, it's going to be very difficult to clear your schedule and make time for some quality affair."

An Expensive Proposition

The dilemma of finding time sounds familiar to Chris Proctor, a married man who admits to having had an affair. "When you're as busy as I am, it is difficult to find the time," says Proctor, a marketing representative in St. Louis.

Three years back, Proctor met a woman from Virginia at a weeklong gathering. The affair lasted for nine months. Looking back on it, he says, it was expensive. He ticks off a list of costly items.

"The cell phone plan, I hadn't planned on," he says. "So that was 60 bucks a month by the time you get text messaging; the phone calls [are] on top of that." He figures he spent up to $5,000 traveling to see his lover. "So it wasn't cheap."

Proctor started to add in other costs — a potential divorce, the cost of his kids not growing up with two married parents — and decided the affair wasn't worth it to him.

Or as Harford would say, the utility Proctor was receiving from the affair was not worth the money or the opportunity cost — that is, what he was giving up in order to have his dalliance.

The Happiness Rule

Economists tend to think about any problem or any choice in terms of preferences. You can't satisfy all your desires at once, because you've got constraints on your budget and your time. Given all your varying preferences, you'll tend to maximize your happiness. You'll rationally choose the best option for you.

People who've had affairs do talk about a measure of rational decision-making at some point in the process — just not always at the outset.

Katherine Johnson works for a law firm in Washington, D.C. She's single, but she encountered a certain married man at the gym who caught her eye. They had both lived in Indiana and hated it, she says. He asked her to lunch, and that lunch was followed by another, and another, until they were having a full-blown affair.

Johnson wasn't betraying a personal commitment of her own. The affair didn't cost her a lot of money. But she did factor in other costs.

"You can't go out on dates," she says. "I couldn't really tell my mom about this. My own integrity was at stake."

She names the benefits.

"It's exciting," she says. "The thought of it is definitely very exciting. For me, the benefit was the companionship and the camaraderie and having someone to talk to throughout the day."

Those benefits outweighed the costs for Johnson for almost a year. When that equation shifted, she ended the affair.

When Your Spouse Is Cheating

Any affair necessarily involves at least three parties: the cheater, the person being cheated with, and the spouse being cheated on. That last person must weigh his or her own costs and benefits.

Harford, the economics advice columnist, hears from this kind of person frequently. In his role as columnist, Harford adopts a persona of someone who finds all of life's answers in economics papers.

A "Mrs. F. in Oxford" might write, "I'm starting to suspect my husband of having an affair. How can I find out?"

Harford says this is a typical "information problem." Mrs. F probably knows people who know whether or not her husband is having an affair, but they don't want to be the one to tell her.

Thus she must to set up what's known as an information market. She can ask her friends and acquaintances to make bets on her husband's fidelity — and those bets should carry real financial consequences.

"She should issue a bond that would pay money if [her] husband [is] caught by a certain date," Harford proposes. "Another bond would pay money if her husband was not caught by a certain date. By looking at the price of these two bonds, she gets a sense of whether there are people out there who think her husband is betraying her."

Obviously, Harford's idea sounds crazy. His plan is also, perhaps, brilliant. It seems to strike people as absolutely one or the other.

Economics is helpful in lining up the rational, measurable benefits of cheating. Proctor says if he had listened to his internal economist, he probably would have determined that $5,000 was more than he wanted to pay for an affair. But he didn't listen.

For politicians, the costs are huge — so much so that they would seem to clearly outweigh any benefits. But every few months, another politician offers another apology.

It may be that these precise economic models can't survive contact with the unpredictability of human beings. If only we could work the passion of X into the utility function — ah, forget it.

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