'Best response is an unqualified apology': How politicians survive political scandals

Time will tell whether the blackface images that surfaced this week will affect Justin Trudeau at the polls, but it certainly hasn't marked the immediate demise of his political career. He continues to carry on as leader of the Liberal party.

And that's not particularly surprising for Andray Domise, a Toronto-based freelance writer and co-host of the cultural podcast Black Tea.

"My point of view on it when the story broke in the first place is that it's probably not going to move the needle very much," he said. 

"There's going to be contrition, apologies, which has happened. There's going to be acceptance of the apologies from party members, also people in the public as well. And eventually this blows over."

The controversy, however, highlights, how certain factors, including the politician themselves, determine whether a politician can survive a political scandal.

"Political scandals come in all sorts of shapes and sizes with varying degrees of severity and risk," said Charles Bird, a principal at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a Liberal strategist. "But the test is always how effectively you can manage and contain them."

"What makes this especially hard is that most scandals come with a high degree of personal embarrassment ... and that clouds judgment on the part of the alleged perpetrator," Bird said.

That's why it's important to have experienced and trusted advisors who can offer "clear-eyed dispassionate advice about how much trouble you're really in and the best way to respond," he said.

"Because without that you're going to dig yourself in an even deeper hole."

Apologizing is key

The apology, then, is often key to survival, Bird said. The qualified apology — such as apologizing for anyone who may have been offended — comes across as half-hearted. 

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"The best response is an unqualified apology, where you're honest about the mistake you've made. You make clear that you've thought it through and understand the implications of your actions and demonstrate genuine remorse.

Bird cited the examples of two U.S. governors who were also revealed to have donned blackface in the past and unequivocally apologized for their actions. 

But that's not always the best course of action, says Adam J. Newmark, a political science professor at Appalachian State University. 

Newmark co-authored a study in Social Science Quarterly, a peer-reviewed journal, titled Surviving Political Scandals: Why Some Transgressions End Political Careers and Others Do Not. 

"There may be situations we don't bother with the apology because you don't see this as gaining any traction," he said.

The paper notes that "aggressively defending or apologizing signals that the scandal is portentous and that there is some culpability on the part of the politician."

Timing is everything

The timing of the scandal may also play a role on whether a politician's career is over.

"Nobody ever very rarely leaves on their own. They're mostly forced out and they're forced out because there's a better option available, said Conservative strategist Jason Lietaer.

If the Liberals believed that they had a better option and a better chance of winning with another leader, they would have forced Trudeau out, he said.

"If this would have been a year ago, a year before an election campaign and you weren't, three weeks away with so many so much uncertainty with changing gears, who knows what would have happened," Lietaer said.

Newmark found that the closer to election day that a scandal breaks, the more likely the politician will survive.

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"Early breaking scandals will leave a lasting, negative impression on voters, resulting in enduring negative candidate assessments," he and his co-authors wrote. "Vote determinations are usually crystallized in advance of an election and few voters are likely influenced by late-breaking scandals."

The Trump factor

As Bird noted, U.S. President Donald Trump has lowered the bar in terms of scandal for all politicians. Despite allegations of extramarital affairs, sexual misconduct and assault and racist comments, actions that may have felled other politicians, he survives. 

"Is it in keeping of what people already expected of him, or is [it], 'Eh, it's Donald being Donald. There's a bit of that that comes into play," said Kim Wright, principal at Wright Strategies.

"What people are looking for is an authenticity. And as long as there is that authenticity then people are 'OK ,maybe this is a one-off. Maybe it is personality. But we know who we're getting."

Bird said Trump has a certain brand, and his supporters have accepted his foibles and appreciate his strengths and that, to an extent, may have inoculated the president.

Political charisma

As Newmark noted in the study, political skill and charismatic candidates may better weather political storms.

Presidents like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan were able to survive their respective scandals — Clinton and Monica Lewinsky; Reagan and Iran-Contra — because of their considerable political skills and charisma. 

But those qualities are rare, they note. 

"Few politicians possess the political acumen of Reagan or Clinton, making reliance on charisma an uncertain strategy for those embroiled in scandal."