Joe Biden wants to make sure Democratic women know he has their back and that prominent women in the party have his.
In the past few weeks, Biden has held a town hall with Hillary Clinton about how the coronavirus disproportionately affects women. He’s appeared on Instagram Live with US women’s soccer star Megan Rapinoe, a feminist hero who once said, if invited, “I’m not going to the fucking White House.” And then, on May 7, the campaign held an organizing call headlined by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), a longtime champion of the Me Too movement.
The campaign has ratcheted up (online) events as the election heads into the summer stretch. And the events are clearly meant to appeal to different voting groups Biden will need in November, including women.
Biden had started signaling to female voters before the end of the primary that he understood they might be disappointed that he, not a woman, was the nominee. At one of the last debates of the primary, he promised to select a female running mate and appoint a black woman to the Supreme Court. He’s also made other moves to show how he plans to collaborate with leading women in the party, endorsing Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy plan and recently co-authoring an op-ed with her about Trump’s coronavirus response.
Now, Biden is dealing with another challenge that could affect how female voters see him. A former staffer, Tara Reade, has accused him of sexually assaulting her in 1993. A year ago, she came forward to say she was fired from his office after complaining about how he touched her shoulders and hair in meetings. Biden has denied the allegation. Leading women in the party have since expressed their support, too.
Gillibrand, who became a symbol of the Me Too cause after she called for Sen. Al Franken to step down amid accusations of sexual misconduct, is among those who backed Biden after he denied the allegations. “Vice President Biden has vehemently denied these allegations, and I support Vice President Biden,” Gillibrand recently said.
Multiple Democratic leaders including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Sen. Tim Kaine have done the same as Biden turns toward the general election against President Donald Trump. Trump has faced more than 20 allegations of sexual misconduct.
Gillibrand didn’t speak about the matter explicitly on the Women for Biden national call last week, but she didn’t have to in order to send the message the Biden camp wants to send to women.
Her event is just one of several that appears intended to demonstrate how Democratic women remain united behind the former vice president. Though it was scheduled in mid-April, before scrutiny on the Reade allegation had grown, it still underscores how powerful men have relied on the women around them to boost their credibility when faced with a sexual misconduct allegation.
“Obviously, Senator Gillibrand’s support of Joe Biden is a powerful message, a timely message,” says former Biden senior adviser and director of management Moe Vela. “It’s a whole sequence of highly respected ... women who are saying to the world, ‘You can be a Me Too advocate and believe Joe Biden at the same time.’”
Joe Biden was always going to want to appeal to women voters
Biden will need to win in districts where Hillary Clinton lost, and that means winning over women voters. Multiple campaign events appear focused on doing just that, though they’ve taken on a different weight in the wake of the Reade allegation.
If the midterms were any indication, women voters will play a significant role in November: In 2018, suburban women were key to Democrats flipping battleground districts, including in states like Virginia, Iowa, and California. And anti-Trump sentiment during the election helped fuel significant swings among key voting groups: As Vox’s Anna North reported, college-educated white women moved toward Democrats by a huge margin in 2018, with 59 percent supporting the Democratic House candidate that year compared to 49 percent in 2016.
Black women across the country have also long been among the most loyal Democratic voters who’ve made the difference in narrow elections, like that of Sen. Doug Jones’s 2017 special election in Alabama. In that race, 98 percent of black women voters backed Jones, helping him edge out former judge Roy Moore. Roughly 92 percent of black women supported Democrats in 2018, according to CBS News.
The massive gender gap in Trump’s approval ratings suggests that independent women, too, could potentially be a prime target in the fall. According to an April Gallup poll, 60 percent of women disapprove of Trump’s presidency, while 47 percent of men do.
Reaching women voters is central to Biden’s candidacy. Up to this point, the former vice president had seen strong polling from this group throughout the Democratic primary. In an April CNN poll, 67 percent of Democratic-leaning women voters said they would support Biden over Sen. Bernie Sanders. As Vox’s Ella Nilsen reported, the sexual assault allegation has raised more questions among women than men: According to recent polling, women were more likely to question the credibility of Biden’s denial.
Continuing to reach out to women voters on key policy issues — while confronting the Reade allegation directly — will be critical for Biden’s campaign.
“There was never any doubt that the Democratic candidate for president would ... prioritize women in this cycle,” Amanda Renteria, the former political director for Hillary Clinton, tells Vox. “I also think it’s important in light of the allegations to lean into more discussions and outreach with women leaders.”
The Reade question
Consolidating the party was already top of Biden’s to-do list; polling indicates that Reade’s allegation could complicate that.
According to a Morning Consult poll that came out last week, about a quarter of Democratic voters think that Biden should be replaced as the party’s nominee in the wake of the Reade allegation. As Nilsen notes, however, “these numbers may in part reflect that Democrats recently finished a divisive primary — and these voters weren’t excited about Biden to begin with.”
Millennials and women voters are two of the groups most concerned with the allegation, according to recent surveys.
Reps. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) are among the Democratic leaders who’ve noted that the allegation is a complicated one to navigate, and one that forces the party to wrestle with how it addresses sexual misconduct.
“I reject the false choice that my party and our nominee can’t address the allegations at hand and defeat the occupant of the White House,” Pressley wrote in a recent Medium post.
The allegation ultimately puts Democrats in the difficult position of weighing a candidate who has now been accused of sexual assault against a president who faces more than 20 allegations of sexual misconduct.
And the women who are being considered for vice president may face the most pressure to address this bind, writes The Cut’s Rebecca Traister:
Part of what’s sickeningly clear is that if Biden remains the Democratic nominee, whichever woman gets the nod to be his running mate will wind up drinking from a poisoned chalice. Because the promise to choose a woman ensures that whoever she is, she will be forced to answer — over and over again — for Biden’s treatment of other women, including the serious allegations of assault leveled by Tara Reade.
Now that [Biden] is the presumptive choice, he may in fact be the only presidential bulwark against Donald Trump, who is both murderous and incompetent and whose reelection would lead to further cataclysmic collapse of our environment, health-care system, courts, and democracy, with fatal results that will redound more negatively to women than to men and most negatively of all to women with the fewest resources.
In the fight to prevent this, Biden and his campaign will be calling on women — especially the women who have challenged him in the past, including on feminist grounds — to help him build support by rallying other women around him. That rallying will now have to entail somehow papering over the disgust and dismay provoked by multiple allegations of inappropriate touching and alleged assault made against yet another would-be president.
This situation is also one that has revealed double standards on the subject for men and women — even within the Democratic Party. Women are often asked to answer for these types of allegations in ways that men are not, and they are penalized for their responses in ways that men are not, Traister notes.
For example, even though Pelosi has been asked by press about Biden’s response to the allegations, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer had not faced those same questions last week. In a response to a question from Vox last Friday, Schumer’s office offered a statement responding to the allegation.
“Senator Schumer believes every woman deserves to be heard, and before the #MeToo movement that was too often not the case,” the statement reads. “Sen. Schumer believes that Joe Biden’s answer has been sufficient and will work as hard as he can to make sure Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump and has a Democratic Majority in the Senate.”
As the New York Times’s Jessica Bennett and Lisa Lerer write, “the burden has been placed on women to defend Mr. Biden, and to face accusations of hypocrisy from some on the right, that progressive men have not had to endure.”
Gillibrand’s support of Biden has marked just one example of this pattern playing out. While critics have said her current position contradicts that of previous ones she’s taken on Franken and Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, and argued that it hurts her credibility, it’s this support that strengthens Biden’s position on the issue. This very support is also what the former vice president will need to continue expanding his appeal with women voters.
“What’s so hard about the double standard on how women are treated versus men is that the Gillibrand call helps Biden with authenticity, but will do the opposite for Gillibrand,” says progressive strategist and founder of New Deal Strategies Rebecca Katz.
Correction: This article has been updated to include a comment from Sen. Schumer’s office sent ahead of publication time.