WASHINGTON – Traffic is the new sex.
Stick with me. Sen. David Vitter, who recently announced that he is running for governor of Louisiana in 2015, is ahead in a recent poll. You may recall Vitter’s apology in 2007 after his phone number surfaced during an investigation of the prostitution ring run by the notorious “D.C. Madam,” Deborah Jeane Palfrey, who later committed suicide. The details of his dalliances involved infant wear. He said he committed “a very serious sin in my past for which I am, of course, completely responsible.”
His lead in the polls is in keeping with other comebacks by officials caught in sexual scandals. After his own prostitution scandal, former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer got a TV show and ran a creditable race for New York City comptroller.
Former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford survived trying to cover up his infidelity with a tall tale about hiking the Appalachian Trail and returned to Congress. Bill Clinton, who was impeached for his transgressions, left office with a 68 percent approval rating, and his wife is the leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Compare that with the fate of politicians involved in traffic scandals. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is the subject of multiple investigations for the epic gridlock on the George Washington Bridge. His nonbest friend from high school, David Wildstein, whom he appointed to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, is singing like a bird. Kentucky Sen. Paul Rand is pursuing questions about how federal funds for Superstorm Sandy were spent, and several mayors are anxious to tell him. Even Christie’s idol, Bruce Springsteen, mocked him on late-night TV. Just 35 percent of Americans see the governor favorably, down from 52 percent in a Gallup poll in June.
He’s gone from a 32-point net positive rating last summer to a 5-point net negative now. Before Bridgegate, he topped many of the polls about potential Republican presidential candidates. A Washington Post/ABC poll puts him in third place now, with the support of just 13 percent of Republicans, behind Rep. Paul Ryan and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
Republican Gov. Nathan Deal of Georgia also has seen voters tap the brakes over his traffic record. Deal was a shoo-in for re-election in his Republican-leaning state until “Snowjam ’14” (it’s never good for a catastrophe to get a name) created a crushing traffic jam on the interstate. Deal was missing in action as the snow began to pile up, and he initially blamed poor weather forecasting for the failure to clear roads or stagger closings so that everyone wasn’t hitting the freeway at the same time.
The overnight crisis – a baby was born on the Interstate, people were trapped overnight in their cars while their children slept at school – attracted national attention. On NBC, Al Roker scolded Deal for calling the storm a surprise when all he needed to do was turn on the TV to find out it was headed his way. Late-night host Jay Leno joked, “Drivers were stranded, traffic was at a standstill for 12 hours, and everyone was asking the same question: ‘What did we do to ... Chris Christie?’ ”
Now it’s the people of Georgia who are ticked off at Deal, who was lunching with the mayor of Atlanta when both should have been glued to the Weather Channel. A survey showed 1 out of 3 people blamed Deal, not Mother Nature, for the traffic nightmare. In a statewide poll, 57 percent of Republicans rated Deal poor to fair.
According to Public Policy Polling, while Deal still holds a lead over his likely opponents who haven’t yet begun to advertise, including State Sen. Jason Carter (yes, grandson of Jimmy), only 36 percent of voters approve of Deal and 41 percent disapprove, a terrible place for an incumbent to be.
He would have been better off having lunch with a hooker. Just ask Sen. Vitter.
• Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist.