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How Will Sexual Misconduct Allegations Reshape The 2020 Election?

Welcome to FiveThirtyEight’s weekly politics chat. The transcript below has been lightly edited.

micah (Micah Cohen, politics editor): Welcome, friends! I hope everyone had a thankful Thanksgiving! 🦃

harry (Harry Enten, senior political writer): I had turkey. I wish I had duck.

clare.malone (Clare Malone, senior political writer): “#sex-misconduct-2020” — what a name for a Slack channel. My god.

micah: Sign of the times.

For discussion today: A wave of sexual misconduct allegations has hit political and media figures. So we’re going to take the long view today and talk about how all this might play out in the context of the 2020 presidential campaign. One muchtalkedabout 2020 prospect, Al Franken, has already been accused in multiple incidents.

So, first we’ll talk about how sexual harassment and assault allegations could directly affect the 2020 field. Then we’ll discuss how the issue generally could affect the 2020 race.

harry: Sounds good to me.

micah: Let’s start with Franken …

clare.malone: He can’t run for president.

micah: Cards on the table: I think this is a huge blow for Democrats.

clare.malone: In what sense? As a party, because he can’t run?

micah: Yeah. I thought he would have been a really strong 2020 candidate against President Trump.

harry: You drafted him very high in our potential 2020 Democratic nominees draft.

clare.malone: But there are a lot of other strong candidates too, so I’m not sure it’s a huge loss in terms of Democrats’ chances in 2020.

Now, did how Democrats reacted to the Franken allegations hurt them? Maybe.

micah: Hold that thought!

perry (Perry Bacon Jr., senior writer): Franken himself has not been high on his 2020 chances. He has repeatedly said that he will not run. Maybe he knew that some parts of his comedy career and pre-Senate life would emerge and make it difficult to run.

clare.malone: Or he was just saying that, playing the coy politician game of demurring until …

micah: Are we all in agreement that he can’t run now?

perry: Not fully. No. Politics is a male-dominated field. Even the Democratic primary, the donor class is men.

clare.malone: I think so … Harry?

Should Franken launch a comeback bid??

micah: I mean, there is a loooong time until the 2020 primary heats up.

harry: The allegations will make it very difficult for him to run.

clare.malone: Democrats have enough other competent candidates that Franken is just not a good investment, given other options.

harry: A majority of Democrats think that sexual harassment within their party is a “very serious” or “somewhat serious” problem. I don’t think they’re going to choose someone accused of it.

clare.malone: There are a lot of powerful women’s advocacy groups out there in the Democratic universe, guys …

micah: Is Joe Biden in the same position?

clare.malone: Has he been accused of something I’m unaware of?

harry: Biden’s performance at the the Anita Hill hearing is problematic.

micah: Yeah, I was talking about the Hill thing.

perry: There are videos — and I think it was featured on “The Daily Show” — of times that Biden has touched women in odd ways, like Ash Carter’s wife during Carter’s swearing-in as the defense secretary in 2015. And, yeah, his handling of the Hill hearing.

clare.malone: I mean, I find that stuff not all that convincing if I’m going to be perfectly honest and out there.

It seems very different from what Franken is accused of — forcibly kissing someone, grabbing breasts.

micah: Yeah, that seems right to me.

clare.malone: Now, that’s not to say that if someone said “he grabbed my ass” I wouldn’t believe it.

But I just don’t find the argument that he’s a hugger and maybe too much of a shoulder-rubber to be all that convincing.

perry: Biden is not the same as Franken, of course. But would I want Anita Hill publicly criticizing me during a Democratic primary in which I’m running against Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and/or Amy Klobuchar. No.

clare.malone: Yeah, of course.

micah: Yeah, let’s just take the Hill part of this. How big a problem would that be for him?

harry: I guess I wonder whether the party will nominate an old white guy who has a history of seeming to be non-supportive of a woman accusing a powerful man of sexual harassment at a critical point in his career.

clare.malone: The Hill stuff would be brought up, but here’s the thing: Democrats are going to choose Biden if they think they need a person to cross over to the disaffected Obama-Trump voters. And I think those voters wouldn’t care all that much about Anita Hill.

Now, do I think Biden is going to be the candidate? No way.

micah: But not because of Hill?

clare.malone: Not necessarily, Micah. I just think Democrats want fresh blood.

perry: If there were a Democratic primary debate, say next Wednesday, I think Biden would be on the defensive, big time. But it’s hard to imagine we are in this moment on accusations of sexual harassment two years from now.

micah: Interesting. That’s sorta the big question: How lasting is this moment?

clare.malone: In politics and media, at least, very lasting, I should think.


It remains to be seen what the American electorate thinks of it and whether they will take this moment to heart. Democratic primary voters are likely to take it seriously.

perry: The specifics of that Hill hearing, how the male senators jumped on Hill, how Biden basically prevented other women from testifying against Clarence Thomas in public, are really damning.

If there was sustained, detailed coverage of that, I think it would matter.

harry: And the “Resistance” is largely led by women, so I expect a lot of power to come from that part of the electorate in the primary. And sexual harassment is a big deal for those voters.

micah: Particularly, as Clare notes, in a Democratic primary.

micah: Before we turn to Trump, are there any other potential 2020 Democratic candidates who have been accused of anything?

clare.malone: Sen. Sherrod Brown’s ex-wife accused him of domestic abuse — hitting and threatening her.

The fact that his ex-wife is now friendly with him might make it easier to handle, though. She never followed up on the charges, and in 1992 said, ‘”Divorce can often be an unfriendly ordeal, and ours was no exception. There was a lot of hurt on both sides, and it led only to angry words.'”

But, it’s still a thing that has come up for him in a couple of elections. I wonder how it would play in 2017.

perry: I hadn’t read that full account around Brown.

clare.malone: Yep. It’s not that well known outside Ohio, I don’t think.

perry: Hard to see him running in 2020.

harry: Anything and everything relating to a male candidate’s relations with women will be brought up in a way that perhaps we aren’t used to from the past. We’ll see.

clare.malone: Yeah … I can’t wait to talk about how politically savvy Gillibrand has been in this moment.

perry: I disagree. So I’m eager to discuss this.

micah: DEBATE!

clare.malone: OK, so Gillibrand said that Bill Clinton should have resigned over the scandal involving Monica Lewinsky. That statement brought down the wrath of the likes of Philippe Reines, a Clintonworld person, in a string of truly amusing late-night tweets.

But the idea here is that Gillibrand is trying to capitalize on the current political moment — kill your idols. This is smart, in my book, because frankly: (i) a lot of people hate the Clintons, (ii) it makes Gillibrand seem woke to the moment, (iii) it’s a way to make her seem like a more appealing anti-establishment liberal to the younger folks (uh, she is not).

micah: Ooooh, I had not thought of that last point!

clare.malone: But I also think Obama-Trump voters would like the Clinton slam — and as we know from her early pro-gun record, Gillibrand isn’t afraid to court the center.

perry: Gillibrand, who has flip-flopped on basically every issue from her time as a more conservative member of Congress to a very liberal member of the Senate, has accepted all kinds of support from the Clintons for basically her entire career. There was a way to criticize Bill Clinton’s conduct without becoming, I would argue, a leader of the “Bill Clinton should have resigned movement,” a role she doesn’t have a great deal of credibility for …

But as I was typing the above and reading what Clare wrote … I think I’m convinced. Most people don’t know Gillibrand’s history. Younger people won’t care. The Clintons are done.

I think Clare is right.

micah: That was a fast debate!

perry: Yeah, Gillibrand is very establishment, but this makes her less so. Clare is right.

micah: I now officially give Clare this chat’s debate 🏆

clare.malone: Oh, I think it was SO SMART to bite the hand that fed her.

Cleansing fire!

Burn that bridge!

micah: 🔥 🌉

clare.malone: Anyhow — I think she’s looking like a 2020 front-runner. There. I said it.

micah: BAM!

harry: Clare, of course, picked Gillibrand in the first round in our draft.

perry: Massive flip-flops are generally bad. But Gillibrand is moving in the right direction and taking a stand that will matter. It also fixes what I thought people would see as her biggest problem: She’s Hillary-Clinton-esque, a blond female senator from New York who is tight with Bill Clinton.

micah: OK, so let’s pivot for a sec …

The likely GOP candidate in 2020, of course, has his own problems with allegations of sexual harassment and assault.

clare.malone: Who?

micah: Those problems didn’t prevent him from winning in 2016, but that’s not the same thing as saying they didn’t cost him electorally. So … does Trump’s history take on a different role in 2020 in this new context?

clare.malone: Mmm

micah: Harry, we got polling on this?

clare.malone: I don’t think it does for a lot of people, to be honest.

micah: You think it’s baked in? Or that it will be treated as “old news”?

harry: A majority of people believe Trump is biased against women.

clare.malone: They already elected him knowing a lot of this stuff and made allowances for “Trump being Trump.”

Al Franken is the kind of guy who will read an act of contrition. Trump is not. And the people forgave him (or something) anyhow.

micah: Well, enough people did for him to win.

perry: Is it possible that all of the accusations happening now are, to use a word I hate, “normalizing” what Trump did? If Roy Moore, John Conyers and Franken are in Congress in 2020 — a real possibility — will at least 50 percent of voters be able to look past the allegations against Trump? (46 percent already did.) And all of this stuff on race and gender is part of Trump’s brand.

harry: The big question is whether the Democratic candidate is in a position to capitalize on Trump’s weaknesses. Clinton, who was so unpopular, was apparently unable to.

clare.malone: My esteemed colleagues both make good points.

There is certainly a danger, from the Democrats’ point of view, that many swing voters will just think: “OK, we already knew politicians were rotten. Now we know they’re all a little pervy, too. C’est la vie!”

micah: Couldn’t the allegations against Trump be more damaging in 2020 if they receive more sustained focus — i.e., throughout the campaign?

Remember that in 2016, they broke late and then were overtaken by other news.

In 2020, the Democratic candidate will be able to run ads on it throughout.

perry: It will be hard to cover in a sustained way because it’s not NEW news, assuming that there won’t be any new accusations.

Everyone can re-interview the women from before and publish those stories with more details, but it’s going to be tough to make news with that. Also, I feel like Roy Moore is running “f— the media, vote for me” and that might be appealing to a lot of conservatives. Trump has and can do the same thing.

clare.malone: Yeah, I just don’t think his alleged harassment will be at the fore.

I frankly bet that it will be overshadowed by claims of incompetence.

micah: Won’t Democratic Candidate X mention it in every stump speech?

perry: No. Is Doug Jones mentioning Moore’s stuff in every speech? Not that I’ve seen.

clare.malone: Right.

micah: Well, OK then.

harry: I’m not sure what the top issue will be in 2020. If the economy goes south, it will almost certainly be that. With the economy doing OK, it could just be a mishmash of issues.

clare.malone: Oh god, Harry, tempting fate.

micah: IDK, I feel like you all are underrating the extent to which old news becomes new news because new details emerge, or Trump says something stupid, etc.

clare.malone: Hm.

Do you really think there is a shortage of news these days, Micah?

perry: The details about Trump that we learned in 2016 were kind of, well, detailed. What do you think we can learn, Micah?

The guy explicitly said he would grab women “by the pussy.”

micah: I mean, I don’t know. Maybe there’s a video somewhere. Maybe new accusers come forward. I really don’t know.

perry: A video I guess would be different

clare.malone: I really need to do a lot of yoga before 2020 so I’ll just be blissed out.

micah: That, or the pharmaceutical route.

perry: I think what you are getting, at least from my point of view, is this: Does this new climate around sexual harassment provide voters, particularly women, who maybe regret voting for Trump the first time with a sort of permission structure not to vote for him next time? I.e.: “He wasn’t the president I thought he would be. I didn’t realize how bad the allegations of harassment against him were in 2016,” etc.? I think this is possible. Yes.

harry: My own guess would be that sexual harassment as an issue will move far more voters in the primary than the general election.

clare.malone: For Trump? Or are you talking Democratic primary?

harry: The Democratic primary.

clare.malone: (We haven’t even talked about a GOP primary situation in which a candidate runs, knowing he’ll lose, but to weaken Trump. And that candidate would maybe use the Trump moral failings/harassment charges as ammunition.)

perry: My guess is that the Democratic primary will be clear of any people who have harassed anyone. And I don’t think John Kasich should run against Trump based on sexual harassment.

micah: I guess my point, as Perry noted, is that the bounds of what’s “acceptable” can change. There was a group of people who looked past the allegations against Trump in 2016. Maybe some won’t look past them again in 2020. For example, these Republican women who Clare talked to last year before the election.

perry: I think this is correct.

clare.malone: Tri-bal-ism, people.

micah: Partisanship is a helluva drug.

clare.malone: I also think older women have a different attitude toward harassment, even if they’ve experienced it. I say this from personal and reportorial experience.

Women are no exception to society’s historical leniency toward male harassers.

harry: To Micah’s point: A lot of voters down in Alabama have shifted their votes based on the Moore allegations. (Whether that holds, I don’t know.) So I won’t say it won’t be an issue. It could be, especially if a candidate makes it a focal point of a campaign.

clare.malone: Yeah, I think I want to see whether it holds. I’m genuinely curious.

micah: Yeah, how Alabama plays out may provide clues as to what to expect in 2020.

perry: OK, unless Micah has a question, how about this: Will Bill Clinton speak at the 2020 Democratic National Convention?

micah: Interesting question!

I think … no.

clare.malone: HELL no.

perry: I say yes, but not in prime time.

micah: Oh, that’s a good answer.

clare.malone: Well, as I’ve said often, Democrats are bad at politics, so, sure, they might do that.

harry: I’d block him from entering the state.

perry: Lol.

micah: OK, to wrap, we’ve already hit on this a bit, but let’s talk about sexual misconduct as an issue, rather than how it will affect candidate selection. Will it be part of the mix in 2020?

Will Democratic or Republican candidates have to be for certain policies? Or just “anti-sexual misconduct”?

clare.malone: It strikes me that much of the debate hasn’t actually even involved policies to solve harassment issues — for instance, what the legal definition of sexual harassment is.

micah: 100 percent.

clare.malone: I.e., it’s very difficult to prove in court that you’ve been harassed.

So it will be interesting to me if candidates act on it from a policy point of view and put that out there front and center on their platforms.

perry: Well, this past month, I read lots of articles about what does not work: training. Good thing that is what Congress is literally implementing right now.

clare.malone: yeahhhhhh …

harry: It starts on the Democratic side. If one candidate wants to make an issue out of this, then it is likely that the others will follow. That is just as key as what’s in the zeitgeist. (Granted, an environment in which sexual harassment is still brought up in the news every day makes it more likely that a candidate will bring it to the forefront.)

micah: Final thoughts?

perry: My final thought is that politicians in both parties are struggling with this issue. I was surprised how Nancy Pelosi, a trailblazing woman in politics, struggled to talk about Conyers this weekend. So it’s hard for me to predict what will happen.

harry: I think the chance of a woman being the Democratic nominee in 2020 has gone up over the past few months.

clare.malone: Yes.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

Harry Enten was a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

Micah Cohen is FiveThirtyEight’s former managing editor.