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In the 1980s, a scandal involving sex led to the demise of a presidential front-runner. Why not today?

In the 1980s, a scandal involving sex led to the demise of a presidential front-runner. Why not today?

Although former President Donald Trump was indicted recently, the charges have not affected his polling performance in the 2024 presidential election. Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis via Getty Images

It’s the spring of the year prior to the presidential primaries and a scandal that involved a clear front-runner has sparked a media storm and wall-to-wall coverage.

We’re not talking here about former President Donald Trump. He was arrested last week on criminal charges stemming out of a hush money payment he allegedly made in relation to his 2016 campaign. This payment was purportedly to cover an affair with a pornstar. Former Sen. Gary Hart was the Democratic Party’s leading candidate for the 1988 presidential nomination. Hart faced a media “feeding frenzy” over his alleged marital infidelity. This scandal led Hart to suspend his campaign, and ultimately end his political career.

Let’s be clear, these are not apples-to oranges cases. Both involved alleged misconduct. Trump faces felony charges under New York state law. Hart was not accused of breaking the law. Hart was not a former president like Trump, even though he led the early primary polls. It could be called “apples to pear” Yet, each time, the favorite for a party’s presidential nomination faced a high-profile scandal that — at least on paper — could have caused serious damage to his campaign, and possibly his party’s future electoral prospects. Hart’s polling dropped just as he suspended the candidacy. He also received very little support from key figures in his party. Trump has seen his polling numbers improve among Republicans and he’s enjoyed close-to-unified support from all members of his party, even potential Republican primary opponents.

While the political trajectories of these candidates diverge dramatically, it’s not due just to circumstantial differences. It is emblematic of larger changes in American politics over three-and-a half decades: the consolidation and support for Trump by the Republican Party, a more polarized media environment, and increased partisanship which has made it easier for parties to rally behind their leaders in the face scandal.

Let’s go back to 1987, when Hart was a strong candidate to win the 1988 Democratic nomination. This was after his remarkable performance in the 1984 Democratic primaries. Hart would not go unopposed in 1988 but New York Governor. Hart would not be unopposed in 1988, but Hart won the election as New York Governor.

Hart was the front-runner and faced questions about his past life, including rumors of infidelity. The Miami Herald received a tip in April that Hart was seeing a woman other than his wife. The private lives of politicians had been kept mostly off limits until then. However, that was beginning to change after Watergate and increased media scrutiny of leaders. Hart faced a flood of coverage about his personal life.

Gary Hart’s 1988 Democratic presidential campaign was marred by allegations of infidelity. National Enquirer/ Dave Buresh/ The Denver Post via Getty Images

Hart received very little support from his opponents and other prominent figures in the Democratic Party amid the media frenzy. Although the “Seven Dwarfs,” mostly avoided commenting, Rep. Dick Gephardt said that “scrutiny is part of the territory” of being an AFL-CIO candidate. Lane Kirkland, the then president of the AFL-CIO only said that Hart and his campaign “wouldn’t have happened.” Meanwhile, polls found Hart’s support had dropped. Hart was still leading nationally, but he’d fallen to the low 30s and lost his edge in New Hampshire. After a disastrous press conference in which Hart struggled with answering the question “Have your ever committed adultery?” on May 8, he announced that he would suspend his campaign.

Despite some wishing he would not be the party’s standard bearer in 2024, the majority of major figures in the Republican Party have rallied around Trump since the indictment. Nearly all of Trump’s potential GOP primary opponents or declared Republicans echoed Trump’s claim that the case was politically motivated. Party leaders, such as Kevin McCarthy, House Speaker, and Ronna McDaniel Chairwoman of the Republican National Committee, stuck to similar themes throughout their statements. In the meantime, conservative media, pundits, and commentators have also defended Trump before their viewers and readers, helping to keep them in the former President’s corner.

Trump’s support base may be motivating factor behind the right’s defense of Trump, beyond the leadership complaints about using the judiciary for political purposes. This belief is supported by the polls. While Trump had been winning in national primary polls, polls conducted right after the indictment news reported that he was improving over pre-indictment polling. Trump is currently polling at around 50 percent in multicandidate polls while his closest rival, Florida Gov., is at around 25 percent. Ron DeSantis has yet to declare his candidacy, but is currently at around 25%.

Trump’s strength has its roots in his past as a president and partly in political polarization. True, some Republicans resisted Trump’s support in 2016. This was most evident after a leaked audio in October 2016 showed Trump making lewd remarks about women. We are far from that time. Trump won that election thanks to the strong force that was partisanship, which overrode “character” concerns to keep Republicans on track (aided out by GOP dislike for Hillary Clinton as an alternative). Trump’s party is the Republican Party, as shown by his popularity among Republicans despite multiple scandals and the fact about three-quarters (or more) of primary poll respondents supporting either Trump or DeSantis, who offers Trump-style politics with an entirely different face.

Hart, unlike Trump, was not caught up in a new type of scandal. Hart did not have as much partisan loyalty to support his position. Hart was not able to be as prominent in the Democratic Party as Trump, since he had never held the White House. Hart didn’t have the partisan media support he needed to defend his candidacy in the same way that Trump does today. Hart was unable to get the support he needed because he had alienated prominent figures from his party. Hart had a difficult relationship with labor unions, which was arguably the most influential constituency of the Democratic Party at the time. He also failed to receive early endorsements from many of his congressional brethren despite having served two terms as U.S. Senator.

Hart’s lack of support was confirmed when he unexpectedly reentered primary in December 1987. Hart was not supported by many Democrats, despite the fact that there was a crowded field of candidates. Although he received a few decent polls at first, his renewed candidacy received mostly incredulous responses by his primary rivals and party leaders. He went out in a whisper, barely winning any votes either in Iowa or New Hampshire.

The Hart and Trump scandals, which were separated by 36 years, both arose from allegations about personal choices. These scandals have a lot to do with how politics and media have changed. Although the scandals may seem like apples to pears in their own right, their circumstances are a veritable fruit bowl — except where the red fruits are on the one side and the blue ones on the other.

Geoffrey Skelley, a senior election analyst at FiveThirtyEight. @geoffreyvs


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