Recently, former vice president Joe Biden announced his 2020 presidential campaign. Biden leads the field for the Democratic nomination even though several women have recently alleged that he touched them inappropriately. These women have made clear that they’re not accusing him of sexual harassment, just of being overly physically intimate.
But in the Me Too era, inappropriate touching strikes a chord. How will these allegations go over with Democratic voters? My research suggests that those who have personal experience with sexual misconduct, most of whom are women, will be less likely to support Biden in the 2020 primary.
The politicization of #MeToo
In October 2017, after allegations of sexual abuse surfaced against several prominent figures in Hollywood, #MeToo emerged as a social movement. Those who’ve been sexually harassed often say they feel isolated and ashamed. #MeToo made it clear that they are not alone and not to blame for the violence they have experienced.
While it began as a nonpartisan movement, opinions about #MeToo are politically polarized, surveys find. Notably, Democrats appear to be more willing than Republicans to seriously consider allegations of misconduct and to hold the accused accountable, even when the allegations are against another Democrat.
So, will Biden’s past behavior hurt his nomination chances? He is popular among Democratic voters. Some prominent Democrats have characterized his hugging and touching as largely harmless. He sponsored the first Violence Against Women Act and has championed its renewal for years.
At the same time, since Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s 2018 confirmation hearings, Biden has faced renewed scrutiny for how he and the Senate Judiciary Committee treated Anita Hill in 1991. During nationally televised hearings about whether to confirm Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Hill testified that Thomas had sexually harassed her. Biden was chair of the all-male committee and dismissed witnesses who would have corroborated Hill’s allegations.
Perhaps as a result, in late 2018, even before the most recent allegations against Biden emerged, I found evidence of a Me Too effect on his campaign. Democratic voters who’ve been personally affected by sexual misconduct were less likely to name him as their favorite in the 2020 race.
Experience with sexual misconduct reduces support for Biden
In December 2018, the American National Election Studies conducted an online, representative survey of 2,500 U.S. voters. The survey included questions about how frequently they’d experienced unwanted sexual advances and their preferred 2020 presidential candidate.
At the time, 27 percent of Democrats named Biden as their top choice in the 2020 Democratic primary. This closely tracks with recent poll results.
Democrats who reported never or only rarely experiencing unwanted sexual advances were more likely than others to pick Biden: 30 percent named him as their top choice. In contrast, only 19 percent of Democrats who said they’d experienced unwanted sexual advances fairly or very often chose Biden, a gap of 11 points.
I find similar results when looking to how Democrats feel about #MeToo and whom they might pick as the party’s nominee. When asked how strongly they felt about #MeToo, Democrats’ responses averaged out to 73 degrees, which is quite warm on a “feeling thermometer” scale ranging from 0 to 100 degrees. (A “feeling thermometer” is a standard social science system for measuring the strength of sentiment.) This is consistent with previous surveys showing Democrats’ sympathy for #MeToo.
Among Democrats whose feelings toward #MeToo were lukewarm, rating it at less than 59 degrees, 32 percent named Biden as their top choice. In contrast, among Democrats who gave #MeToo a very high rating, greater than 93 degrees, only 22 percent named Biden as their top choice. That’s a gap of 10 points.
That’s more true among women than among men
Unsurprisingly, Democratic women were three times more likely than men to report experiencing sexual misconduct: 18 percent of Democratic women and 6 percent of Democratic men said they’d experienced unwanted sexual advances fairly or very often. Democratic women are noticeably less likely to rank Biden as their first-choice candidate.
Among Democratic women who said they’d never experienced unwanted sexual advances, 39 percent named Biden as their top choice in 2020. But only 19 percent of the Democratic women who endured unwanted sexual advances fairly or very often named Biden — a gap of 20 points.
All this could hurt Biden’s shot at the nomination
#MeToo has been thoroughly politicized, and not in the way it was intended to be. Democratic voters may be frustrated by the GOP’s dismissive treatment of alleged sexual misconduct, but Republicans simply do not see sexual harassment as the serious problem that Democrats believe it to be.
Although Biden has recently expressed regret for how Hill was treated, some commentators, including Hill herself, believe this to be a non-apology. Given the Democratic Party’s advantage with female voters, and Biden’s early struggles with Democrats who have experienced misconduct and who have positive views of #MeToo, his past behavior may hurt his chance at the nomination.
Kaye Usry (@KayeUsry) is an assistant professor of political science and policy studies at Elon University, and assistant director of the Elon Poll.