Over the past few years, Americans have grown increasingly divided on issues of sexual harassment and misconduct. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, rank-and-file Republicans have become even more skeptical of women who report harassment.
But now Democratic voters are facing their own high-profile #MeToo test.
Former Vice President Joe Biden has been accused of sexual assault by Tara Reade, an aide in his Senate office in 1992 and 1993. Biden has denied the allegation, saying that it “never, never happened,” but, of course, this isn’t the first time that Biden has been accused of improper behavior. The previous allegations weren’t as grave, but last year, eight women, including Reade, came forward to say that he had made them uncomfortable by invading their personal space or touching them inappropriately.
So far, though, relatively few Democratic voters seem ready to abandon Biden over the allegation, despite its seriousness. According to surveys from HuffPost/YouGov and Economist/YouGov at least around half of Democrats haven’t heard enough to say or are unsure whether they believe the allegations against Biden are credible. Only about 15 percent of Democrats say the allegations are credible.
It’s tempting to interpret this as a sign that Democrats aren’t as committed to believing women when the reputation of their own presidential nominee is on the line. But the reality is complicated. Even though Democrats are much more supportive of #MeToo issues than Republicans are overall, that doesn’t mean Democrats are unified — some, like young liberal men, are a lot less progressive on these issues than others. What’s more, there’s evidence that voters’ views of the Democratic Party and Biden himself are likely doing more to shape their reactions to Reade’s allegation than their preexisting stances on the #MeToo movement are. And with so many Democrats focused on defeating President Trump — who has far more sexual assault allegations against him — it’s possible that many Democrats are willing to look past this accusation.
Democrats aren’t uniformly progressive on #MeToo issues
Even at the height of the #MeToo movement, not all Democrats thought the increased attention on sexual harassment and assault was a good thing. And there’s still a fair amount of variation among Democrats on these questions. We looked at 13 waves of a survey administered by Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape from October 3, 2019, to January 2, 2020, and found that Democrats were divided on how they perceived sexual harassment and gender equality.1 Some of these differences are predictable. Democrats who identified as conservative, for example, were more likely than moderate or liberal Democrats to say that women who complained about harassment caused more problems than they solved. But some divisions were less foreseeable.
Young men, for instance, were more likely than older men or young women to say that women who complained about harassment caused more problems than they solved — particularly young men who identified as very liberal. In our analysis, we found that 32 percent of very liberal men under 45 held this view compared with just 16 percent of very liberal women in the same age group. What’s more, only 26 percent of very liberal men 45 and older held this view.
And on the question of whether respondents would be more comfortable with a man than a woman as a boss, it was these younger, very liberal men who disproportionately said that they would be more comfortable with a male boss (31 percent). Just 13 percent of very liberal women under 45 said the same, as did 25 percent of very liberal men 45 and older.
This kind of complexity isn’t that surprising, though, because sexual misconduct hasn’t been a partisan issue for very long. According to a working paper by political scientists Mirya Holman and Nathan Kalmoe, there weren’t substantial differences between Republicans’ and Democrats’ views of the importance or existence of sexual misconduct prior to 2016. And setting partisan differences aside, women tend to be more supportive of the #MeToo movement and its goals than men are. The notion that young lefty men are substantially less progressive than older men on gender issues and sexual misconduct is a little less intuitive, but it squares with other research indicating that Democrats (particularly men) who supported Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary were disproportionately likely to hold sexist viewpoints.
Partisanship and ideology are likely playing a big role
It’s also possible that most voters’ reactions to Reade’s allegations don’t reflect their views about #MeToo at all. For instance, it might seem reasonable to expect that Republicans and young, very liberal men would be most likely to disbelieve the allegations against Biden. But that’s not really what we’re seeing in the most recent polling data.
According to a HuffPost/YouGov poll from May, the opposite is actually true — despite their greater skepticism about the #MeToo movement, Republican voters are much more likely than Democrats to say that Reade’s allegation is credible, perhaps in part because the accusation was covered widely in right-leaning media outlets when it was first revealed. And even though the Nationscape data indicates that younger male Democrats are generally less sympathetic toward women who report harassment, Democrats under 45 are much likelier than Democrats 45 and over to find Reade’s allegations credible — and more than twice as likely to say that Biden should be replaced as the nominee.
These groups don’t have a lot in common on #MeToo, but what they do share is a propensity to dislike Biden — Republicans because of partisanship, and younger Democrats because they were disproportionately in Sanders’s camp. Political scientists say that’s not very surprising. “Voters are not necessarily looking at this allegation and thinking about it purely as a #MeToo issue,” said Shauna Shames, a political science professor at Rutgers University-Camden. “Most are seeing the allegation through the lens of their party and their ideology, and that’s shaping how they process the information that’s coming out and evaluate whether it’s credible.”
Having Trump — who has been accused of sexual assault by some 25 women — as a foil may also help Biden. “Even among #MeToo supporters who might doubt Biden over the allegation, most will support him over Trump because of the extensive misconduct allegations against Trump,” Kalmoe told us in an email. Kalmoe also thinks that Trump might avoid making as much political hay out of Reade’s allegation as he otherwise might to avoid drawing attention to the slew of accusations against him.
At this point, a lot depends on what happens next — specifically, whether more women come forward with sexual assault allegations that are as serious as Reade’s. But it’s possible that even if it doesn’t change the polls much, this single accusation could hurt Biden by dampening Democrats’ feelings about their nominee. For instance, according to polling by Morning Consult, Biden’s favorability numbers fell as the Reade story started to gain more traction in the media. And Jesse Rhodes, a political science professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, told us in an interview that, while Biden probably won’t lose many votes over Reade’s allegation, some Democrats might be less likely to volunteer for or donate money to his campaign.
But the response to Reade’s latest allegation is also an important reminder that the #MeToo movement doesn’t exist in a vacuum, even for Democratic voters. “Some #MeToo advocates are evaluating these allegations with a nuance that goes beyond the simple ‘believe women’ motto,” Kalmoe said. And with Trump on the ballot against Biden, Democrats might be even more inclined to cast a skeptical eye on Reade’s allegations.