Sexual scandals don't automatically pack a knockout punch for today's politicians, but the circumstances matter to voters.
That's the view of political observers as they assess the political fallout from the most recent revelations involving Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana and Antonio Villaraigosa (D), the mayor of Los Angeles.
On Monday, Senator Vitter admitted to a "very serious sin" after his phone number was found among the records of a Washington, D.C., escort service that's under investigation. Last week, Mayor Villaraigosa apologized for an extramarital affair – his second – which has led his wife to file for divorce.
While such episodes are never positive, voters these days are willing to forgive under the right circumstances, experts say.
"Times have indeed changed," says Mary Ellen Balchunis-Harris, a professor of political science at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "Americans have gotten over the fact that their politicians aren't perfect."
While an overwhelming majority of Americans view adultery as morally wrong – 91 percent, according to a Gallup poll in May – two watershed events have reshaped the ways voters view the sexual indiscretions of politicians.
The first event was presidential hopeful Gary Hart's dalliance with Donna Rice in 1988. The media frenzy that followed drove Senator Hart from politics and opened the door for more news coverage of the same ilk, affecting many politicians in both parties at all levels.
The second event was President Clinton's extramarital affair with a former White House intern. When news of the affair broke in 1998, Mr. Clinton's personal approval ratings reached their highest level of his presidency – an indication that, however much disgust they might have had for his actions with Monica Lewinsky, many voters did not believe it significantly affected his performance in office.
"Since the Clinton era, the voting public has made a distinction between moral failings that actually trade on the power of office and affect public policy and those that do not," says Fritz Wenzel, a spokesman at Zogby International, an independent polling firm in Utica, N.Y. "Sexual improprieties largely are not included in that equation."
Moreover, if Clinton could keep his job in the Oval Office after his actions with Miss Lewinsky, "then it weakens the argument that any lesser public official could be removed from his position," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.
Such a shift may explain why the past histories of current presidential candidates is not attracting much attention on the campaign trail – at least, not yet.
Clinton has returned to stump for his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D) of New York, who currently leads the pack of Democratic '08 hopefuls in national polls. This month, the left-of-center Washington Monthly called two GOP presidential candidates and one potential candidate "the most maritally challenged crop of presidential hopefuls in American political history."
But 56 percent of voters said that an extramarital affair made no difference in whether they would support a candidate, according to a national Pew poll released in February. Another 39 percent said they were less likely to vote for an unfaithful candidate.
"Affairs are clearly not a positive, but it is significant that for the majority of voters, they make no difference," says Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press in Washington.
The same poll showed a significant gap between the parties: Among Republicans, 62 percent said they were less likely to support such a candidate compared with 25 percent among Democrats.
Such circumstances matter, experts say, and not only the politician's voter base but also his or her image and how far away the next election is.
"Much has to do with the politician and how they react to the story," says Kyle Kreider, professor of political science at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. "If the politician appears callous or indifferent to the 'sin,' the public usually does not give the politician a pass. However, if the politician [admits] to it and appears remorseful, the public now is quick to forgive."
In the case of Mayor Villaraigosa, most observers agree that he has been open about his extramarital affair and his wife's pursuit of a divorce – at least since news of the scandal broke. But his emphasis on his family during the 2005 mayoral campaign and his use of family pictures on his official website may come back to haunt him, they say.
"Antonio sold himself as a role model father and husband and therefore is raising the issue of trust for voters," says Sherry Jeffe, a political scientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. But by the next mayoral election in 2009, "how he has performed in office will be much more in the front of voters' minds."
If the Pew poll is correct, Republican Senator Vitter may face a more negative reaction from conservative voters in Louisiana than Democrat Villaraigosa in liberal L.A. However, he also quickly admitted wrongdoing after news leaked out. "Several years ago, I asked for and received forgiveness from God and my wife in confession and marriage counseling," he told the Associated Press in an e-mail.