Joe Biden and the normalization of sexual assault allegations

Jason Morganbesser

Former vice president and possible presidential candidate Joe Biden was accused of sexual misconduct on March 29. Despite speculation to the contrary, Biden’s campaign has endured while sustaining barely a scratch from this debacle.

In a poll by Morning Consult conducted between March 25-31 (largely before the allegations came out), Biden was expected to get 33% of the Democratic primary vote. From April 1-7 (after the allegations), the same polling station showed Biden at 32%, statistically insignificant. And that’s a pessimistic estimate.

Harris X, however, found that people were 9% more likely to vote for Biden after the allegations (April 5-6) than before (March 8-10). Despite widespread coverage of Biden’s possible misconduct, the effects have been minor at worse and positive at best.

The lack of significance ascribed by prospective voters to these allegations, is unusual in the political field. During the 2012 Republican Primaries, Herman Cain was considered one of the frontrunners, consistently polling equal with Mitt Romney, until several women accused him of sexual assault. According to polls done before and after by USA Today, Cain dropped five points in the polls because of these allegations, and his campaign never recovered. Less than a month after the allegations came out, Cain suspended his presidential campaign.

A more recent example of this phenomenon in effect is the Roy Moore campaign. While he wasn’t a very popular candidate among more moderate Republicans, the 2017 Alabama Senate election seemed like an easy win for Moore. It was, after all, deeply Red Alabama, and the last time a Democrat won a senate election in Alabama was 1992. Then, a month before the election, Moore was accused of dating underage girls. For the first time in the election season, polls showed that Moore could lose the election by as many as eight points. Polls from Gravis Marketing, for instance, showed that before the allegations (Nov. 10), Moore was leading the election by two points, but after the allegations came out (November 14-15), Moore had lost his lead, trailing his opponent Doug Jones by five points. And then, on election day, Moore lost the election in Alabama, one of the safest states for Republicans in the entire country.

Perhaps, one could say, it was the magnitude of the crime. In comparison to the previous two examples, pedophilia and rape, Biden’s crime of inappropriate touching does seem rather slight. Maybe voters don’t care about sexual misconduct unless it’s criminal or an extreme affront. However, this explanation, doesn’t hold up under scrutiny.

For proof of this, just ask Al Franken. He was accused of misconduct similar to Biden, uncomfortable, yet not necessarily sexual, touching in public political events. Unlike Biden though, these allegations turned Franken from a popular senator who won his last election by a 10-point margin into an unpopular embarrassment who had to end his political career. In a poll by Emerson College, it was found that Franken, if he ran, would only win re-election by one point in deeply left-wing Minnesota.

In fact, the similarities between Franken and Biden make the question of Biden’s lack of political consequences even more confounding. The only thing that seems to separate the two is when they were accused. They were accused of doing very similar actions, had very similar responses and are from the same party, so therefore their respective constituents theoretically shouldn’t have such different responses. Why has there been such a difference in public response?

To answer this question, we have to go back to the 1990s. Before this era, even being suspected of engaging in an extra-marital affair meant major political problems for the suspect. In 1964, for instance, Nelson Rockefeller was the frontrunner in the Republican Primary until he divorced his wife and married a woman 18 years his junior. Because Rockefeller was suspected of previously cheating on his now ex-wife with his second wife, the moderate Republicans who would have normally supported him refused to, and Rockefeller lost the primary to Barry Goldwater.

More recently, Gary Hart looked like he would be the 1988 Democratic nominee. He was viewed as a young, charismatic centrist who could lead the Democrats to a victory for the first time since 1976. That quickly changed after Hart was caught in an extramarital affair with a woman named Donna Rice. Hart lost his lead, and in the Iowa Caucuses, he ended up with only 1% of the vote.

Then, in the 1990s, scandals involving philandering politicians became much more common. From Benjamin Netanyahu to the disastrous Back to Basics Campaign in Britain, which led to 15 Conservative members of parliament being found in a variety of taboo sexual situations, extra-marital scandals stopped being the exception and became the rule. Thus, extramarital affairs were no longer as destructive for politicians’ careers.

Bill Clinton provides a perfect example of this shift. In 1992, before the shift, Clinton was a good example of the negative aspects of being accused of extramarital affairs. That, paired with a concurrent investigation into Clinton’s draft-dodging during the Vietnam War, caused heavy damage to Clinton’s campaign. After the two scandals, Clinton lost 20 points and his career seemed over. His success, even after these two scandals, is more a testament to his campaigning abilities rather than a societal acceptance of his actions. And so, the scandal that showed societal normalization of extramarital affairs was the Monica Lewinsky affair.

In January 1998, Clinton was accused of sexual relations with White House staffer Monica Lewinsky. Though he originally denied the affair, as more and more evidence came out, Clinton eventually admitted to it during a grand jury. However, it barely put a dent in Clinton’s approval rating.

If anything, he became even more popular than he had been: In November of that year, a Gallup poll showed his approval rating at the highest it had ever been, 73%. For the midterms that year, Republicans chose to focus their efforts on Clinton’s affair, campaigning nationwide against Clinton, which also failed to materialize. In the midterm elections, the Republicans barely retained their majority in Congress, making it the first time the opposition lost seats in a midterm election since 1934. Clinton didn’t just survive but in fact thrived under conditions that would normally have destroyed a politician’s career.

It wasn’t Clinton’s superior campaigning that allowed him to do so well under pressure. If that assumption were true, there should have been a similar response to these allegations as the one in 1992: Clinton should have lost support in the short-run only to gain it back in the long-run. But he didn’t lose support even in the short-run.

Instead, the problem was who was accusing Clinton. By 1998, it wasn’t moralists like Paul Tsongas opposing Clinton, it was Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Gingrich has had quite a tumultuous personal life. Accused of leaving his first wife because of her cancer, Gingrich assured the American public that he wasn’t leaving because of her cancer but his affairs. Later, in the 90s, Gingrich engaged in an extra-marital affair with a woman 22 years his junior.

Thus, because Gingrich was not seen by the American public as speaking from the moral high ground, Clinton left the scandal untouched. The whole affair wasn’t seen as a fight for morals in politics but as a hypocritical politician attacking his opponent. It was the era of bipartisanship; both sides could agree, at least in their personal lives, that philandering was perfectly okay. Why should someone vote on the basis of Clinton’s affairs when hi
s political opponents have affairs of their own?

We can just as easily apply that to Biden’s situation as well. Sure, he’s suspected of sexual misconduct, but so are his opponents. Both major parties support at least some accused politicians, whether it’s Moore and Brett Kavanaugh on the Republican side or Franken and Biden on the Democratic. No longer is it a question of defending morals in politics but of hypocritical politicians using arguments they won’t apply to their own side of the aisle. And that’s why there have been no major effects for Biden.

When Cain was accused, hardly anyone defended him. When Franken was accused, it seemed nonpartisan, and both sides supported his stepping down. By the Moore accusations, it seemed somewhat partisan, but enough Republicans refused to support him for him to lose the election.

By the time Kavanaugh was accused, it was seen through an almost entirely partisan lens: Depending on one’s party, Kavanaugh was seen as either a great man accused out of malice or a serial rapist. But now it appears that the short era when sexual misconduct allegations could end a politician’s career is over. Biden is proof of that.