#MeToo and the Presidential Elections

#MeToo and the Presidential Elections

How will #MeToo impact upon the upcoming presidential election?

The 2020 presidential election will be the first race of the #MeToo era, and with the movement bringing increased scrutiny, candidates have already faced allegations of both misconduct and a failure to combat harassment in their offices and campaigns. 

In late March, Lucy Flores, a former Nevada lawmaker, accused former Vice President Joe Biden of inappropriately touching her shoulders, kissing her head and smelling her hair during a campaign event for her 2014 run for lieutenant governor. Since then, six other women have made allegations against him. 

Biden quickly responded to the allegations, saying it was never his “intent” to make others uncomfortable. In a two-minute video, later posted to Twitter, Biden didn’t directly apologize, but instead pledged to “be more mindful” of women’s personal space. 

“Social norms have begun to change, they’ve shifted, and the boundaries of protecting personal space have been reset. And I get it,” Biden said in the video. “I hear what they’re saying. I understand it. I’ll be much more mindful. That’s my responsibility, and I’ll meet it.”

For #MeToo founder Tarana Burke though, the issue isn’t “personal space or intention” as Biden suggested, nor that people have become “more sensitive over time.” “It’s about bodily autonomy, it’s about power and leadership, and it’s about living into who we say we are and who we want to be,” Burke wrote on Twitter. 

Biden has also faced renewed scrutiny regarding his treatment of Anita Hill during the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings he chaired in 1991. 

But he isn’t the only one grappling with the effects of #MeToo. 

Allegations have already complicated the path for a host of presidential candidates – including Sens. Bernie Sanders (D-VT), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) – forcing them to examine their own offices and campaigns. 

Sanders has faced several accusations from women who allege his 2016 presidential campaign was riddled with instances of sexual harassment. He has publicly apologized to the women who worked for his campaign, forcefully denouncing discrimination. “What they experienced was absolutely unacceptable and certainly not what a progressive campaign, or any campaign, should be about,” Sanders said.

A female aide for Gillibrand accused the senator’s office of ignoring her allegations of a senior staffer’s unwelcome advances. Meanwhile, Booker, a Democratic senator from New Jersey and former mayor, not only admitted to groping a girl when they were teenagers, but wrote about the 1984 incident in a Stanford University column, explaining how the incident had changed him. 

Elsewhere, in December, The Sacramento Bee revealed that California paid $400,000 to settle a sexual harassment lawsuit against Harris’ longtime staffer Larry Wallace, who worked for her in the state attorney general’s office and the United States Senate. Harris said she was not told about the case until The Sacramento Bee had reported it, and the inquiry led to Wallace resigning as a senior adviser on Harris’ Senate staff. 

“It was a very painful experience to know that something can happen in one’s office – of almost 5,000 people, granted – but I didn’t know about it,” Harris told CNN. “That being said, I take full responsibility for anything that has happened in my office.”

In a December 2017 Quinnipiac University National Poll, voters were asked if they would still vote for a candidate who had been accused of harassment by multiple people. Sixty-six per cent of voters said they would “definitely” not vote for the candidate while 24 per cent said they would “consider” voting for them. When narrowed down to parties, Democrats were 84-10 against the candidate and Independents were opposed 73-19. Nearly half of Republicans said they would “consider” the candidate, while 34 per cent said they would not. 

If one thing is drawing heightened attention to sexual misconduct in the election, it’s that women consistently turn out to vote in greater numbers than men. And women were more likely to say they wouldn’t vote for a candidate accused of harassment than men, with 72-17 and 59-32 against the candidate, respectively. 

While Biden technically wasn’t accused of assault, in the first Morning Consult survey since the allegations, the number of voters who said they had a “very favorable” view of Biden fell by six points, an overall decrease of 11 points since early February. He was still the frontrunner among voters, however, with his support only falling from 33 percent to 32 percent. This suggests the allegations have taken a toll on Biden’s public image, but not necessarily on his presidential aspirations. 

When it comes to these allegations, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke says, “Anyone in a leadership position, especially someone seeking to gain more power, should have to answer questions about inappropriate behavior. But more than that they should be accountable – and accountability starts with understanding what kind of harm you caused.” 

“You can say you support #MeToo, and you can say you support women, but you have to be able to demonstrate that in your own organization and in your own behavior,” Kelly Dittmar, a political scientist at Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, told The Los Angeles Times.

As #MeToo heightens expectations, meanwhile, candidates have taken unprecedented steps to implement new workplace protections. “For 2020 Democratic candidates to believably advocate for policies to make workplaces safer, they need to create their own safe workplace cultures,” Emma Boorboor, deputy organizing director of UltraViolet, an advocacy organization that fights to end gender discrimination, told Mother Jones.

Sanders’ campaign has contracted with a third-party hotline that employees can call to report misconduct. Booker’s campaign has established an open-door policy for staffers to meet with their manager’s supervisor, and prohibited retaliation against anyone who comes forward. Harris’ campaign policies include mandatory reporting of all harassment, formal investigations for all allegations and multiple reporting options so employees are not deterred from reporting supervisors. Meanwhile, Gillibrand will be regularly conducting anonymous surveys on workplace environment and the campaign has hired a top staffer who is certified in human resources practices.

Campaigns can create a complex HR situation as they rapidly expand operations across the country, and the campaigns’ operations directors, who are usually chosen for their political expertise over HR experience, are typically left to manage human resources along with a plethora of other responsibilities. That’s why Gillibrand’s decision to hire a staffer certified in human resources is so crucial to ensuring that presidential campaigns are prioritizing female workers’ safety. All of the candidates’ campaigns also require their staffers to undergo sexual harassment training. 

But it’s not just the Democratic field that is taking note of the shift in public opinion. Republicans have been thinking about #MeToo as well. 

In 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump’s White House prospects were almost derailed by an Access Hollywood tape of him bragging about grabbing women’s genitals. Since then, Trump’s team has taken the time to “responsibly assess and update our personnel policies in anticipation of the 2020 presidential campaign,” according to Michael Glassner, the chief operating officer of Trump’s campaign, who recently spoke to Buzzfeed News about the issue. Steps include the introduction of harassment policies that define violations and protocols, and offer “numerous options” for reporting allegations. While it’s not certain if these policies will be enough, as long as the campaign follows through on these promises, it would be progress. 

With #MeToo, candidates know they are under the microscope in regard to sexual harassment, and they are under pressure to not only protect their staff, but their candidacies as well. 

Artwork by Esme Rose Marsh

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