Conflict-of-interest allegations may not damage Donald Trump

The research suggests that voters don't mind too much

President Trump
President Trump

The list of Donald Trump’s potential conflicts of interest is long. The president has sought to promote his daughter Ivanka’s clothing line using his official potus Twitter account. In January, the Trump Organisation doubled membership rates at Mar a Largo (otherwise known as the Winter White House), where the president played golf with Shinzo Abe, the Japanese prime minister, on February 11th. This week, it was reported that the National Confectioners Association, which is hoping for a rollback of government sugar subsidies, had booked venues at Trump Organisation hotels for a number of conferences. In an interview after the election Mr Trump said that, “I don’t care about my company… The only thing that matters to me is running our country.” Will the electorate care if his actions continue to suggest otherwise? Evidence around alleged corruption and political prospects suggests it may not.

Mr Trump has set up a trust for his business interests run by his son Donald Trump Jr. Critics are unassuaged: the trust’s tax ID number is the same as the president’s social security number and he can revoke it at any time. But while court challenges have begun, allegations of corruption remain that: allegations. And past experience suggests even charges or convictions around corruption can have limited impact on electoral outcomes.

Evidence from past American elections compiled by Susan Welch and John Hibbing of Pennsylvania State and Nebraska Universities suggest that 75% of incumbents charged with corruption won subsequent elections regardless. Those researchers, moreover, suggest that corruption charges surrounding conflict of interest (the focus of complaints against Mr Trump) have the least impact on results.

European experience is no better: Andrew Eggers of the London School of Economics and Alexander Fisher of Yale University studied Britain’s expenses scandal, where members of parliament were found to have charged the government for expenses subsequently deemed inappropriate, including a floating duck house charged by Sir Peter Viggers, member for Gosport. Implicated MPs received a vote share only about 1.5 percentage points lower than non-implicated MPs in the subsequent elections in 2009. There were only 31 out of 650 constituencies in that election where the winning margin was less than 1.5%. And between 1948 and 1994, more than half of those elected to Italy’s Chamber of Deputies were charged by the judiciary with malfeasance. Those charged saw lower re-election probabilities, but they weren't much lower: 51% compared to 58% amongst the group not charged.

Corruption may matter more when it appears in the executive branch. After all, that is where the big money contracts and regulations are directly controlled. Looking at Brazil, Caludio Ferraz and Frederico Finan of Berkeley find that audits of municipal accounts showing financial irregularities and diversion of funds had a dramatic impact on re-election prospects for mayors. On the other hand, Silvio Berlusconi was continually dogged by tax and bribery scandals that eventually landed him with a prison sentence—but not before he had served as Italy’s Prime Minister in four separate governments.

The president might even benefit from a corruption scandal. In America, scandals reduce trust in government and corruption allegations reduce voter turnout. Daniel Stockemer of the University of Ottawa and colleagues looked across countries and found similar evidence. But the supporters deterred from turning out aren’t necessarily those of the implicated incumbent. Alberto Chong of the University of Ottawa and colleagues used the 2009 municipal elections in Mexico to run an experiment on information about corruption. In the days before the vote, they randomly distributed fliers containing data from audit reports on municipal spending that involved over-invoicing, fake receipts, diverting resources, and fraud. They found that providing information that the incumbent was corrupt reduced votes for the challenger more than it did for the incumbent. Chong and colleagues suggest that learning about corruption might merely have made voters think all politicians were corrupt—and so that the challengers were as likely to be as bad.

If voters simply expect politicians to be at least somewhat self-serving, the calls to world leaders about his golf courses or tweets encouraging the purchase of Ivanka's frocks may not count for much when it comes to votes. And if Mr Berlusconi is any indication, the payoff from cultivating conflicts of interest can be considerable: research by Berkeley’s Stefano DellaVigna and colleagues found that during the period Mr Berlusconi was in power, his media company received an additional one billion euros of advertising revenues from companies heavily regulated by the government. So don't discount the possibility of Mr Trump both rising up the Forbes rich list and winning re-election in 2020.

Source: C.K., The Economist

This article was originally published on trumphalism