Three weeks ago, after Leeann Tweeden accused Minnesota Sen. Al Franken of groping her and kissing her without her consent, we argued that Democrats ought to have pushed for Franken to resign. Doing so would have allowed them to claim the moral high ground at a time when allegations of sexual misconduct had implicated both Democratic and Republican politicians — including President Trump and Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama. It would also have come at a relatively small political price, since Franken’s replacement would be named by a Democratic governor and Democrats would be favored to keep the seat in a special election in 2018.
Democrats didn’t see it the same way; instead, the party line was that Franken’s case should be referred to the Senate ethics committee. But the party has since shifted gears: On Wednesday, a cavalcade of Democratic senators — first several female members, such as New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand and Hawaii’s Mazie Hirono, but eventually including party leaders such as New York’s Chuck Schumer — called on Franken to resign. Franken’s office has said he’ll make an announcement about his future on Thursday, which many reporters expect to be a resignation.
Unfortunately, this was fairly predictable: Sexual predation is often serial. (Consider, for instance, that, on Jezebel’s fairly exhaustive list of prominent men accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault, all but a handful have multiple accusers.) The lesson is that even if party leaders think that an initial allegation against one of their members may be politically survivable or morally tolerable, it will often be followed by other accusations.
But something else changed too: Democratic leaders got a lot of feedback from voters in the form of polls, and it wasn’t positive.
Voters care about sexual harassment allegations — and thought both parties were mishandling them
Polling suggests that voters care a lot about sexual harassment allegations — a Quinnipiac poll this week, for instance, found that 66 percent of voters thought that politicians should resign when “accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault by multiple people.” And the poll also found that only 28 percent of voters approve of the Democrats’ handling of sexual harassment and sexual assault claims, as compared with 50 percent who disapprove. That’s better than the numbers for Republicans (21 percent approve, 60 percent disapprove), but not by much. Meanwhile, a Huffington Post/YouGov poll last month found equally poor numbers for Democrats and Republicans when voters were asked whether the parties had a sexual harassment “problem.”
Voters are also not necessarily interested in making overly fine distinctions among different types of sexual misconduct. A YouGov poll this week, for instance, found that roughly the same proportion of voters wanted Franken (43 percent resign, 23 percent not resign, 35 percent not sure) and Moore (47/22/31) to step down.1 All of this goes to show that voters face a number of complexities when considering these allegations, such as the number of accusers; the severity of the alleged misconduct; the age of the victims and their ability to consent; the amount of time passed since the alleged misconduct; the credibility of the accusers; whether the politicians apologize for the conduct or how persuasive they were in denying the allegations; and whether the allegations involved an abuse of public office. As a human being, I have my own intuitive and moral sense for how to weigh these factors — but as someone who tries to diagnose their political impact, I don’t necessarily expect everyone else to sort them out in quite the same way.
The moral high ground could also be the political high ground for Democrats
It’s reasonable to be a little bit suspicious of polls showing voters to be highly worried about sexual harassment because sometimes partisanship can outweigh voters’ self-professed concerns.
There’s also some partisan asymmetry in how voters interpret these claims. As The Huffington Post’s Ariel Edwards-Levy points out, voters in both parties largely believe sexual harassment claims made against the other party — but Democrats also tend to believe claims made against fellow Democrats, while Republicans are more skeptical about claims made against GOP lawmakers. Note, of course, that Trump won the Electoral College last year and received 88 percent of the Republican vote despite more than a dozen accusations of sexual misconduct against him.
All of this can be frustrating to Democratic and liberal commentators, who complain about “unilateral disarmament,” i.e. the notion that Democratic legislators such as Franken and Rep. John Conyers will be forced to resign because of sexual misconduct allegations while Republicans such as Moore, Trump and Texas Rep. Blake Farenthold will survive theirs because their bases will rally behind them.
This may be more of a curse than a blessing for Republicans, however. Somewhat contrary to the conventional wisdom, the allegations against Moore have had a meaningful impact in Alabama. Moore has put Republicans in an unenviable position: He’ll either lose a race to a Democrat in one of America’s reddest states, trigger a nasty intraparty fight over expulsion, or stay in office but potentially damage the Republican brand for years to come. Voter concern over Republican mishandling of the accusations against GOP Rep. Mark Foley, who sent sexually explicit messages to underaged teenage pages, was a contributing factor in the landslide losses Republicans suffered in 2006. And while it isn’t a perfect analogy because they weren’t accused of sexual misconduct themselves, Missouri’s Todd Akin and Indiana’s Richard Mourdock lost highly winnable Senate races for Republicans in 2012 after making controversial comments about women who had been raped.
So it may well be that Democratic politicians usually resign from office when faced with accusations of sexual harassment while Republicans usually don’t. If so, that could work to Democrats’ benefit. If the Democrat is in a safe seat, he’ll be replaced with another Democrat anyway. And if he’s in a swing seat, the party would often be better off with a new candidate rather than one who’s damaged goods.2 In Minnesota, for instance, Franken’s approval rating has plunged to 36 percent, according to a SurveyUSA poll, down from 53 percent last year. Whichever Democrat replaces him would have to win the special election in 2018 but would then probably have an easier time than Franken holding the seat for the full six-year term that comes up in 2020.
Moreover, a tougher stance toward accused harassers such as Franken makes Democrats look less hypocritical when party leaders such as Nancy Pelosi talk about having “zero tolerance” on sexual harassment.
Maintaining the moral high ground isn’t always easy. It means you have to hold your party to a higher standard than the other party. It means you sometimes have to make real trade-offs. But it can also pay political dividends and mitigate political risks. Democrats just lost an election in 2016 against a historically unpopular candidate because their candidate was disliked nearly as much. The political environment is favorable for Democrats in 2018, but perhaps the easiest way that Democrats could blow their opportunity is if voters conclude that as bad as Republicans are, Democrats are no better. With Democrats coming around to a tougher stance on Franken and Conyers while Republicans equivocate on Moore and restore funding to his campaign, they’ll be able to draw a clearer distinction for voters.