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Tara Reade’s Allegations Put Establishment Democrats In A Bind: Believe Women Or Back The Nominee

Editor’s note: This article contains a detailed description of the sexual assault Tara Reade says Joe Biden committed against her.

Carolyn Van Houten / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Tara Reade says that in 1993, then-Sen. Joe Biden pressed her up against a wall in the United States Senate, kissed her neck and hair, slid his hand under her blouse, then used his knee to spread her legs and penetrated her with his fingers. Biden denied the allegations Friday: “I’m saying unequivocally it never, never happened.”

The country has spent four years in a messy reckoning over sexual assault, harassment and accountability. Every high-profile case has been argued on its own terms, and Biden’s will be no different. But past instances of sexual assault allegations in politics have shown that it’s party officials who help decide whether a politician weathers the storm. If precedent tells us anything, it’s that establishment Democrats will help determine whether Reade’s account has any impact on Biden’s campaign. In politics, believing women is complicated.

Biden isn’t a stranger to accusations that he’s made women uncomfortable. Last year, a number of women alleged that he invaded their personal space in ways that felt inappropriate, if not sexual — though some felt his touching was indeed sexual. Reade was among those who came forward with an account, though at the time she did not relate her allegation that Biden had pressed her against the wall.

The public reaction to the initial allegations was muted. A Morning Consult/Politico poll of Democratic voters found that half of respondents said the allegations would have no bearing on whether they’d decide to support Biden, and 32 percent of Democrats said that he hadn’t behaved inappropriately at all. The Hill and HarrisX ran a poll around the same time that found that 62 percent of Democrats said the allegations shouldn’t preclude his presidential ambitions.

Of course, Reade’s new allegations are quite different from the ones Biden faced last year. Vaginal penetration falls under the Justice Department’s definition of rape.

In many ways, Biden is in a precarious political position with his Democratic base. The party has squared itself firmly behind the “believe women” ethos of the MeToo movement, and Democratic voters have consistently showed less tolerance for sexual misconduct and assault. A Pew Research Center survey from 2018 found that 62 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents thought that men getting away with sexual harassment was a major problem and 60 percent said the same about women not being believed when they lodge harassment claims. Those numbers were about double the share of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents who said those issues were major problems.

There was a similar partisan gap when Christine Blasey Ford and others accused Justice Brett Kavanaugh of past sexual misconduct. An NPR/Ipsos survey conducted in October 2018, a month after Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings, found 75 percent of Republicans thought the MeToo movement had gone too far, but only 21 percent of Democrats thought so.

The question, of course, is whether numbers like those will hold when a Democrat is involved. For example, a Washington Post-Schar School poll conducted shortly after the Kavanaugh hearings found that 76 percent of Republicans were concerned that men could be accused unfairly of sexual assault. Only 34 percent of Democrats felt the same. Theoretically, that could mean trouble for Biden.

But Democrats’ principled stance on sexual misconduct can soften a little — or at least get more complicated — when it comes to members of their own party. Sen. Al Franken resigned in 2017 after Leeann Tweeden alleged he forcibly kissed her during a USO tour and a photo appeared to show him groping her while she slept. In November of 2017, 59 percent of Democratic survey respondents in a Morning Consult/Politico poll said elected officials — generically — should resign if faced with credible allegations of misconduct. But only 49 percent of Democrats in the same survey were in favor of Franken, specifically, resigning. A KSTP/SurveyUSA poll of Minnesotans from the same time found 34 percent of Democrats said he should remain in office, 14 percent thought he should resign and 46 percent thought he should wait for the results of an ethics investigation.

But while Democratic constituents waffled, Democratic elected officials were more decisive. In early December 2017, a group of Franken’s Democratic Senate colleagues, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, demanded he resign. Franken did so a day later, his fate sealed by his colleagues’ loss of confidence.

Franken’s case shows that what can truly sound the death knell of a politician’s run is the loss of support from party insiders; the condemnation of one’s peers is a damning thing in this line of work. After the “Access Hollywood” tape revealed that Donald Trump had bragged about making unwanted advances on women, some Republicans, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, abandoned him. But he maintained the backing of powerful allies like Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and, luckily for Trump, his scandal broke close enough to Election Day that Republicans had few viable choices to replace him.

So far, Democrats seem to be following a similar playbook, perhaps because Biden is running against Trump. The president has been accused of sexual assault — including rape — by 17 women. Even if the accusations against Biden are true, Democrats might be willing to rationalize voting for him if they perceive him as the lesser of two evils.

Democratic officials have closed ranks around Biden even as Reade’s allegations have received further attention and reporting. When asked about Reade’s allegations, Gillibrand said, “I support Vice President Biden.”

The political cover that Biden already built for himself by declaring that he would choose a female vice president — a consolation prize of sorts for voters disappointed by their white, male de facto nominee — is paying off as his campaign fights Reade’s allegations. Potential vice presidential picks have, so far, not come out against Biden. Sen. Amy Klobuchar said, “I think this case has been investigated,” and talked about Biden’s record on helping victims of domestic abuse. Another senator in the vice presidential running, Kamala Harris, said Reade “has a right to tell her story” and that she could “only speak to the Joe Biden I know. He’s been a lifelong fighter, in terms of stopping violence against women.” Stacey Abrams, another vice presidential contender, said, “I know Joe Biden, and I think he’s telling the truth and this did not happen.” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, herself a survivor of rape and another name that has been batted about in vice presidential speculation, was slightly more circumspect when asked about Reade: “Well, I think women should be able to tell their stories. I think that it is important that these allegations are vetted, from the media to beyond. And I think that, you know, it is something that no one takes lightly,” Whitmer said. “But it is also something that is, you know, personal. And so it’s hard to give you greater insight than that, not knowing more about the situation.”

The Biden campaign sent out talking points this week for surrogates who will need to address the Reade question. “Here’s the bottom line: Vice President Joe Biden has spent over 40 years in public life: 36 years in the Senate; 7 Senate campaigns, 2 previous presidential runs, two vice presidential campaigns, and 8 years in the White House. There has never been a complaint, allegation, hint or rumor of any impropriety or inappropriate conduct like this regarding him – ever.”

The plan for now, it would appear, is to deny, deny, deny and encourage Democratic officials to do the same. In the political world, that calculus isn’t half bad and has worked to great effect: President Trump, it should be noted, continues to deny all 17 assault claims against him.

Clare Malone is a former senior political writer for FiveThirtyEight.