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Gauging the Public’s Reaction to Edwards’ Extramarital Affair

Frank Newport

John Edwards has publicly acknowledged having had an extramarital affair -- a behavior that 9 out of 10 Americans consider to be morally wrong. Just as many Americans believe that having an affair is morally wrong as say polygamy is wrong. By contrast, less than half of Americans now say that sexual relations between an unmarried man and woman -- or between two people of the same sex -- are morally wrong. And over half approve of men and women living together without being married.

In other words, regardless of the vast changes in American society and shifts in public expressions of and discussions of sexual behavior, the expressed moral taboo against extramarital affairs in this country continues.

The near-universal agreement that extramarital affairs are morally wrong, of course, does not mean that they don't occur.

There is no precise up-to-date figure on the actual incidence of extramarital affairs in U.S. society, although one well-respected sociological survey from the 1990s suggested that between 15% and 25% of married partners reported having had sexual relations outside of marriage.

American literature, theater, movies, and television focus on extramarital dalliance as a cultural given. Plus, we are confronted with the seemingly never-ending parade of well-known married political figures who are forced to admit and/or confess that they have strayed from the marital bed.

So we have a behavior that continues to be surrounded by a strong normative taboo in American culture, yet one in which a not insignificant percentage of Americans engage regardless.

I have yet to see any poll results dealing directly with the reaction of the American public to either Edwards' behavior or Edwards himself following the revelation of his affair. Presumably, as noted, an American's view of Edwards' behavior could tilt toward outrage that he has committed an act almost universally condemned as immoral, or (on the other hand) toward a more sympathetic reaction given practical recognition that such behaviors are not uncommon in current-day America.

When we last tested Edwards' image, in January, it was more favorable than unfavorable, by a 48% to 37% margin. We'll test it again, and it will be of some interest to see whether his favorables have plummeted (suggesting that the public is pushing toward the "moral outrage" reactive side), or whether they have stayed reasonably the same or even increased (possibly suggesting that the public is tilting more toward the sympathetic side of the ledger). It can be remembered that Americans' views of Bill Clinton after his public acknowledgment of having engaged in "inappropriate relations" with intern Monica Lewinsky did not plummet. In fact, Clinton received the highest job approval ratings of his administration just as the U.S. House voted to impeach him.


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