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Survey | More Americans say financial misconduct by elected officials is a very serious moral problem than say sexual misconduct

[06.22.2011]

The June PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey was conducted by Public Religion Research Institute in partnership with Religion News Service following former Congressman Anthony Weiner’s resignation announcement and released amidst a new Congressional Ethics Panel investigation of sexual harassment by Congressman Alcee Hastings of Florida.

Read the news release here.
Read the RNS story here.
Read the Questionnaire, Topline Results and Survey Methodology here.

Financial vs. Sexual Misconduct

Strong majorities of Americans believe that both financial and sexual misconduct by elected officials constitute serious moral problems. However, for elected officials, significantly more Americans believe that financial misconduct is a very serious moral problem than believe sexual misconduct is a very serious moral problem.

Financial Misconduct

The percentage of Americans saying it is a very or extremely serious problem for elected officials to commit the following financial offenses:

  • 91% taking a bribe;
  • 81% not reporting all of their income on their taxes;
  • 76% using their office to enrich friends or family;

Sexual Misconduct

The percentage of Americans saying is a very or extremely serious problem for elected officials to commit the following sexual offenses:

  • 67% sending sexually explicit messages to someone other than their spouse;
  • 66% having sex with a prostitute;
  • Americans overall do not make a distinction between male and female elected officials who commit adultery.
    • 72% cheating on a spouse by a male elected official
    • 69% cheating on a spouse by a female elected official.

Lying About a Sexual Misconduct vs. the Act Itself

Significantly more Americans say that lying about immoral sexual behavior is a very serious moral problem than say the behavior itself is a very serious moral problem. Nearly 8-in-10 (77%) Americans say it is a very serious moral problem if an elected official lies about an immoral sexual act, compared for example, to only two-thirds of Americans who say it is a very serious moral problem if an elected official has sex with a prostitute.

Virtual vs. Physical Immoral Sexual Behavior

Americans do not make strong moral distinctions between virtual versus physical immoral sexual behavior. Roughly two-thirds of Americans say sending explicit sexual messages to someone other than their spouse is a very serious moral problem—roughly the same number who say having sex with a prostitute is a very serious moral problem (67% and 66% respectively).

Gender Gaps on Views about Morality of Sexual Indiscretions

Men and women are about equally as likely to view financial misconduct as serious moral offenses, but they hold significantly different views about the morality of sexual indiscretions.

  • Nearly three-quarters (74%) of women say that it is a serious moral problem if an elected official has sex with a prostitute, compared to 58% of men. More than 7-in-10 (72%) women say that it is a serious moral problem if an elected official sends sexually explicit messages to someone who is not their spouse, compared to 62% of men.
  • There is no significant difference between men and women on the question of adultery by a female elected official. However, women are much more likely than men to say it is a very serious moral problem if a male elected official cheats on his wife (77% vs. 66% respectively).

Resigning from Office

Americans are much more likely to say that elected officials who commit financial offenses should resign than they are to say that those who commit sexual offenses should resign. For instance, 87% of Americans say a public official who takes a bribe should resign, compared to 55% who say an elected official who sleeps with a prostitute should resign.

  • There are significant divisions by gender. More than 6-in-10 (63%) women say that an elected official who has sex with a prostitute should resign, compared to less than half (46%) of men.
  • Nearly two-thirds (64%) of women say that a male elected official who commits adultery should resign, compared to only half (50%) of men. A majority (56%) of women say a female elected official who commits adultery should resign, compared to 51% of men.
  • More than three-quarters (76%) of white evangelicals say that an elected official should resign if they have sex with a prostitute compared to 54% of white mainline Protestants and Catholics, and only 42% of the unaffiliated.

Conduct in Public vs. Professional Life.

Americans are divided over whether they believe an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically in their public life (44% agree and 44% disagree).

  • Men are much more likely than women to differentiate between public and private life. A majority (51%) of men say it is possible for an elected official to behave ethically in their public life even if they committed an immoral act in their personal life. Only 37% of women agree.
  • Younger Americans (age 18-34) are much more likely than older Americans (age 65+) to believe that elected officials can behave ethically in public life even if they commit an immoral act in their personal life (54% vs. 33%).
  • Democrats are also much more likely than Republicans to say that elected officials can separate personal from professional behavior (49% vs. 36% respectively).
  • Nearly two-thirds (64%) of white evangelicals say that an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life CANNOT behave ethically in their public life, compared to 43% of white mainline Protestants, 49% of Catholics, and 26% of the unaffiliated.

Moral Standards for Elected Officials

More than 6-in-10 (61%) Americans say that elected officials should be held to higher moral standards than people in other professions.

  • Seven-in-ten (70%) white evangelicals say that elected officials should be held to a higher moral standard than people in other professions, compared to 68% of Catholics, 58% of white mainline Protestants, and 51% of the unaffiliated.

Behavior of Past Elected Officials compared to Today’s Officials

Nearly two-thirds (65%) of Americans say the moral behavior of elected officials is about the same today as in the past, 28% say it is worse and only 6% say it is better.

Read the news release here.
Read the RNS story here.
Read the Questionnaire, Topline Results and Survey Methodology here.

The survey asked Americans to judge the morality of a number of offenses independently of each other. Results of the survey were based on RDD telephone interviews conducted between June 16, 2011 and June 19, 2011 by professional interviewers under the direction of Opinion Research Corporation. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 1,006 adults 18 years of age or older living in private households in the continental United States. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 3.0 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.