71% of Utah voters still think that the Attorney General should resign. That number is down from 78% in June, but it still represents a sizable share of the population.
We take the title for this post from that classic patriotic movie Stripes. In this movie, Bill Murray plays a down-on-his-luck character who decides to turn his fortunes around by joining the army. Before he can enlist, he needs to answer a question from the recruiter: “Have you ever been convicted of a felony or misdemeanor?” Murray’s character says “Convicted? No.” And his sidekick chimes in, “Never convicted.”
Such seems to be the current condition of Attorney General Swallow. With the news that the Federal Government has decided not to charge him, he can say, like the characters in Stripes, “Charged? No, never charged.” The salient question is whether or not that bit of news strengthens his position with Utah Voters.
In a June Utah Voter Poll, 34% of the respondents said that they thought he had done something illegal. In the October poll, that proportion drops to 26%. Many of those respondents from the June poll moved to the choice that “he has done nothing illegal, but he has done something unethical.” That number increases from 62% in the June poll to 66% in the October poll. The proportion that says he has done “nothing unethical” stays in single digits but increases from 4% in June to 8% in October. Swallow’s lawyer might enthusiastically call this a 100 percent increase, but it is safer to say that it is within the margin of error.
Though there has been some small movement away from the conclusion that Swallow has done something illegal, overall less than 10% of respondents believe that the attorney general has acted ethically – a precarious position for the state’s chief law enforcement officer.
Other results only emphasize that precariousness. 71% of Utah voters still think that the Attorney General should resign. That number is down from 78% in June, but it still represents a sizable share of the population.
Scandals create complexity and nuance in public opinion. Much of what respondents say about scandals depends to a large extent on what information respondents have to help them sort through the choices pollsters offer them (Shah et al. 2002; Zaller 1998; Funk 1996; Zaller 1992). And not all information is created equal. Negative often has a bigger impact than positive because it can be more memorable; respondents also tend to favor recently received information because it is generally easier to summon.
To test the extent to which knowledge of the Swallow scandal shaded public opinion, we inserted a framing experiment into the October poll. Framing experiments allow the researcher to vary the information given to the respondent in order to assess the impact of different kinds of information.
Specifically, we wanted to know if the decision of the Federal Government not to charge AG Swallow would affect support for continuing the investigation undertaken by the Utah House of Representatives.
We used four treatments. Voters were randomly assigned to either the control or one of the four treatments. Each treatment contained slightly different information about the nature of the investigations facing the Attorney General. The exact wording of these treatments is provided in the endnote.1
Remember that the control was the overall support for continuing the House investigation. The control contained no additional information. Overall, almost 74% in the control said it should “definitely” or “probably continue.”
However, the proportion that says that the investigation should continue depends on the information that the respondent has fresh in the mind. The best news emerges in Treatments 1 and 2 where voters are told that the AG has either been “cleared of bribery accusations” (50%) or the Justice Department “would not seek bribery charges against him” (52%). With that type of information in mind, the support for a House investigation declines.
The proportion that wants the House investigation to continue climbs higher in Treatments 3 and 4. In Treatment 3, the stronger language of “cleared” is used along with a reminder of ongoing investigations by other entities. Here, 57% want the House investigation to continue. Treatment 4 uses softer language. It does not refer to “cleared” but only to the Department’s decision not to pursue charges. 56% want the House investigation to continue under this treatment.2
Overall, even after directly reminding Utahns of the Justice Department’s decision not to proceed, a majority of respondents still prefer the House investigation to continue. But the support for the House investigation is also sensitive to the contextual information that is provided. What the public knows and recalls matters for the distribution of opinion. The AG needs good news to reduce the large deficit of public trust he currently faces.
Click here to download a topline report that includes the full survey questionnaire, frequencies for each question, a detailed methodological report (including details about the sampling as well as response rates and cooperation rates) and information about the margin of sampling error.
Funk, Carolyn L. 1996. “The Impact of Scandal on Candidate Evaluations: An Experimental Test of the Role of Candidate Traits.” Political Behavior 18(1): 1-24.
Shah, Dhavan V., Mark D. Wattts, David Domke, and David P. Fan. 2002. “News Framing and Cueing of Issue Regimes: Explaining Clinton’s Public Approval in Spite of Scandal.” Public Opinion Quartery 66(3): 339-370.
Zaller, John R. 1998. “Monica Lewinski’s Contribution to Political Science.” PS: Political Science and Politics 31(2): 182-189.
Zaller, John R. 1992. The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. New York: Cambridge University Press.