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Sex and Politics: The Case of Arnold Schwarzenegger (posted September 6, 2003)

Recent disclosures that California gubernatorial candidate Arnold Schwarzenegger talked in a 1977 Oui magazine article about engaging in group sex and drugs have attracted an onslaught of attention. There has been speculation about its impact on his election campaign and whether his public image will suffer as a result.

However, public opinion polls about candidates' personal lives reveal that voters are remarkably forgiving about sexual behavior and drug use as long as it is in the PAST. A September, 1999 Pew Research Center national survey asked voters about 13 different situations and whether the press should report on these things. As shown below, the percentage of people thinking the press should almost always report on particular situations was highest for spouse abuse (71 percent felt it deserved reporting) but relatively low for past affairs (23 percent) and drug use (23 percent).

-Spouse abuse, 71%
-Income tax evasion, 65
-Exaggerated military record, 61
-Exaggerated academic record, 61
-Ongoing affair, 43
-Homosexuality, 38
-Past drinking problem, 36
-Cocaine use, 35
-Psychiatric treatment, 28
-Past affair, 23
-Marijuana use, 23
-Antidepressant use, 20
-Had abortion, 17

In his book, Peep Show (pp. 19-28), political scientist Larry Sabato argues that the press should not report drug or alcohol abuse that was a youthful indulgence or adult abuse that is more than 10 years old. The late 2000 campaign revelation that Republican candidate George W. Bush had been arrested in his youth for driving while intoxicated did not derail his presidential prospects. Celebrities and legacies often get held to a different standard than conventional politicians. Voters do not tolerate the same kind of behavior from a Tom Delay as they would a Hollywood entertainer. What Schwarzenegger needs to do is come up with a better explanation than "I don't remember doing the interview." Perhaps something like "I was stupid then, but more responsible now" would help him deal with this and other personal issues expected to come to light in the closing days of the campaign.
Copyright 2000Karen Martin Media Services