The Foley Factor

So I got a polite e-mail this morning from NPR's Howard Berkes saying I hadn't quite gotten right the post I did on his story the other day. We went back and forth a few times, and it became clear to me that the story was far more complicated than I had anticipated. So he offered to write up a more detailed account of his rigorous reporting, which is what follows.

There's a drumbeat of political punditry right now essentially saying this: "The Foley scandal could cost Republicans control of Congress."

And that seems to make sense. Why would the "moral values" party prevail when its key congressional leaders are embroiled in a scandal focused on immorality?

Recent polls suggest that Republican congressional candidates are in trouble. But does the Foley scandal bear the blame? Democracy Corps, a polling organization that advises Democrats, released its survey Wednesday of 1,000 likely voters. The survey was conducted over three days and after former Rep. Mark Foley (R-FL) resigned due to sexually implicit and explicit messages sent to young congressional pages. The poll asked this question: "Based on what you have heard in the last week, do you have a better or worse opinion of Republicans in Congress?"

Of those surveyed, 66 percent chose "worse." But the poll did not ask any question specifically mentioning the Foley scandal. There was a lot in the last week that might have inspired that response, including the intelligence report questioning the effectiveness of the war in Iraq and the war on terrorism, and the passage of legislation that defines new treatment rules for non-combatants.

Thursday, two more polls appeared. The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press was in the midst of its two-week long survey of 1,804 registered voters when Foley resigned. It measured whether attitudes toward Republican candidates, in general, and Republican congressional leaders, in particular, changed after the House page scandal broke. Pew found no significant difference. Before the scandal, 51 percent of those surveyed said they would vote Democratic. After the scandal, Democratic support held at 50 percent, a difference that is statistically insignificant.

Pew pollster Andrew Kohut concluded, "The scandal's impact on voter opinions of GOP congressional leaders — and the Republican Party's image for honest and ethical governance — has been fairly limited." Still, there was no direct Foley question in the poll.

Also Thursday, an Associated Press/Ipsos poll of 1,501 likely and/or registered voters was released. The poll was conducted this week, when the Foley scandal seemed to dominate the news. Some 40 percent said Democrats are trusted more when it comes to handling scandals. Only 25 percent would trust Republicans to respond properly to scandal. Almost half of the respondents (47 percent) agreed with the statement that "the recent disclosures of corruption will be extremely important or very important to their vote."

The AP/Ipsos poll did not ask any direct questions about the Foley scandal so it's not clear whether respondents were thinking about that or the Jack Abramoff scandal or any of the other ethical issues involving congressional Republicans. What's not clear, from any of these surveys, is whether the Foley scandal makes the surveyed voters less likely to support their specific Republican congressional candidate in November.

NPR tried to assess that in a completely unscientific way Wednesday. We possessed a list of respondents to a bipartisan September poll of 529 likely rural voters in competitive congressional districts. We identified Republican and independent/undecided voters who supported President Bush in 2004, listed "moral values" as their top issue, and/or regularly attend church. These are people, we figured, who would likely be upset by a moral values scandal.

We phoned 28 people and reached and interviewed 14. None said the Foley scandal would change their vote or dissuade them from supporting Republican candidates. They didn't see the Washington scandal as a decisive issue in their congressional races. As Tom Clark of Muddy Pond, Tenn., put it, "Every congressman in this country is crooked, no good and sucks. Except for mine. Mine's a good guy. That's the mentality in this country and it's always been that way."

There was also reluctance to abandon the party that still seemed to best fit the moral concerns and conservative values of the people we surveyed.

Again, there is nothing statistically significant about our survey. No broad conclusions are possible. But, it is an indication that the scandal in Washington, D.C. may not be the Republican killer Democrats and pundits imagine. And until scientific polls ask the question directly, the "Foley Factor" remains shrouded in unsupportable speculation.

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