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How US voters react to politicians' infidelity

Republicans are less likely than Democrats to support a candidate who was unfaithful, poll shows.

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Sexual scandals don't automatically pack a knockout punch for today's politicians, but the circumstances matter to voters.

That's the view of political observers as they assess the political fallout from the most recent revelations involving Sen. David Vitter (R) of Louisiana and Antonio Villaraigosa (D), the mayor of Los Angeles.

On Monday, Senator Vitter admitted to a "very serious sin" after his phone number was found among the records of a Washington, D.C., escort service that's under investigation. Last week, Mayor Villaraigosa apologized for an extramarital affair – his second – which has led his wife to file for divorce.

While such episodes are never positive, voters these days are willing to forgive under the right circumstances, experts say.

"Times have indeed changed," says Mary Ellen Balchunis-Harris, a professor of political science at La Salle University in Philadelphia. "Americans have gotten over the fact that their politicians aren't perfect."

While an overwhelming majority of Americans view adultery as morally wrong – 91 percent, according to a Gallup poll in May – two watershed events have reshaped the ways voters view the sexual indiscretions of politicians.

The first event was presidential hopeful Gary Hart's dalliance with Donna Rice in 1988. The media frenzy that followed drove Senator Hart from politics and opened the door for more news coverage of the same ilk, affecting many politicians in both parties at all levels.

The second event was President Clinton's extramarital affair with a former White House intern. When news of the affair broke in 1998, Mr. Clinton's personal approval ratings reached their highest level of his presidency – an indication that, however much disgust they might have had for his actions with Monica Lewinsky, many voters did not believe it significantly affected his performance in office.

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