PRINCETON, NJ -- Gov. Mark Sanford of South Carolina and Sen. John Ensign of Nevada -- the latest elected officials to admit publicly to having extramarital affairs -- are flying in the face of public opinion if they expect to find Americans condoning their dalliances. Gallup's latest Values and Beliefs update, conducted last month, shows that 92% of Americans say married men and women having an affair is morally wrong, garnering more opprobrium than any other moral issue tested in the poll.
Both Gov. Sanford and Sen. Ensign evinced deep regrets when they publicly announced their transgressions, and both apologized profusely for the distress their affairs had caused those around them. The overt acknowledgement that their actions were wrong may help these politicians gain at least some sympathy from their constituents and others around the country, given the stark fact that the American public overwhelmingly sticks by the position that affairs are morally wrong.
By way of contrast, almost 6 out of 10 Americans say unmarried men and women having sexual relations is morally acceptable. A little over half say having a baby out of wedlock is morally OK. But casting negative moral aspersions on having an extramarital affair is nearly universal, and even exceeds (by one point) the percentage who say polygamy is morally wrong.
There has been little change over the last eight years in Americans' views about married men and women having an affair.
Both Sanford and Ensign are Republicans, although there have certainly been Democratic elected officials who have admitted to straying from the marital bed in recent years, including former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and former President Bill Clinton. But with such a high percentage of Americans agreeing on the moral unacceptability of having an affair, there is, not surprisingly, only slight variation across party lines. Two percent of Republicans, 5% of independents, and 10% of Democrats say having an affair is morally acceptable.
There is also a slight difference between men's views and women's views on extramarital affairs; 8% of men say they are acceptable, compared to 3% of women. And despite the conventional wisdom that young Americans may be more morally libertine than those who are older, 18- to 29-year-olds in the Gallup survey are little different in their views on the moral acceptability of extramarital affairs than are those 30 years of age and up.
Despite the fact that Americans overwhelmingly find the recent actions of Sanford and Ensign to have been morally wrong, it is unclear at this point how much of an impact their affairs will have on their careers. Neither has resigned from his office. Both had been mentioned as possible presidential contenders in 2012. A Gallup Poll from November 2007 showed that while 54% of Americans said it would bother them at least moderately if a presidential candidate has had an extramarital affair, another 46% said it would bother them either "not much" or "not at all."
Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,015 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted May 7-10, 2009. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on land-line telephones (for respondents with a land-line telephone) and cellular phones (for respondents who are cell-phone only).
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.