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A sexual assault allegation hasn’t hurt Biden’s poll numbers — yet

Some voters who believe Tara Reade’s allegations still aren’t ready to drop Biden, new polls suggest.

Joe Biden speaks with Hillary Clinton during “The Impact of Covid-19 on Women” virtual town hall event as seen livestreaming on a laptop in Washington, DC, on April 28.
Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Tara Reade’s sexual assault accusation hasn’t made a noticeable dent in Joe Biden’s poll numbers against President Donald Trump — yet.

The presumptive Democratic nominee has “unequivocally” denied sexual assault allegations from Reade, a former Senate staffer of his, for an incident she says happened in 1993. While some are calling for Biden to step down or be replaced at the Democratic convention, polling so far shows Democrats and independent voters are still largely behind the former vice president.

A new national poll by Monmouth University released Wednesday with a margin of error of 3.6 percent shows Biden leading Trump 50-41. The same poll showed voters evenly split on whether they believed Reade’s allegation: 37 percent of voters said it is “probably true,” while 32 percent said it is “probably not true” and another 31 percent had no opinion.

Other polls out this week paint a similar picture: Even if some voters think the Reade allegations are true, that may not be enough to turn some them off of Biden unless more corroboration or additional accusers come forward, numerous pollsters told Vox.

“I think basically the news itself in terms of its impact is not enough to override what is the underlying fundamental of this election, which is a referendum on the president,” Monmouth polling director Patrick Murray told Vox. “The alternative has to be really something unacceptable. I think in a different situation in a different time with different candidates, this would have a much more significant impact for Biden.”

While the Monmouth poll shows Biden’s approval rating dipping slightly, his numbers in a head-to-head matchup against Trump remain relatively stable — even growing a bit from past Monmouth polls. It should be noted that Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to assault by more than 20 women, and was elected president in 2016 a month after a tape emerged of him bragging about assaulting women.

Two other polls released this week suggest the Reade allegations are causing a minority of Democratic voters to rethink the party’s choice for nominee, with women and younger voters more skeptical of Biden’s denial. A Monday Morning Consult poll found about 25 percent of Democrats wanted Biden to be replaced as the Democratic nominee after watching his denial of the Reade allegations, while another poll by Politico and Morning Consult found 32 percent of voters from all parties said Reade’s allegations made them less likely to vote for Biden.

Fracturing party unity and slipping poll numbers with young voters in particular could spell trouble for Biden down the line. But at this point in the campaign, these numbers may in part reflect that Democrats recently finished a divisive primary — and these voters weren’t excited about Biden to begin with, pollsters told Vox.

“If I’m on the Biden campaign and I see that one in four Democrats want Biden replaced at this point, I’m thinking that number is not that bad,” said Cameron Easley, senior editor at Morning Consult. “In fact, I might expect it to be a little bit higher. Unless you see some other details emerge, some other Democratic elites and leaders come off the sidelines and turn on Biden, I wouldn’t expect these numbers to get much higher.”

As he runs against Trump — a man whose response to sexual assault allegations has been to attack his accusers — Biden has leaned heavily into his image as a champion of women’s rights and a moral authority. Whether or not Reade’s allegations are ever proven, they could get in the way of the contrast Biden wants to draw.

A Morning Consult tracking poll conducted May 2-3 with a 2 percent margin of error showed voters don’t see a ton of daylight between the two men on the issue of sexual harassment and misconduct. The poll showed 44 percent of voters said it’s a “major issue” for Trump, while 37 percent said the same for Biden. The Trump campaign has already seized on the Reade allegations, and the coming weeks will set up a key test of how Biden and his campaign continue to respond.

“How he handles this is really important,” said Suffolk University pollster David Paleologos. “I think it’s less about what happened and more about how Vice President Biden will deal with it.”

What the polls tell us about how voters view the Reade allegations

Three polls from Morning Consult, Politico, and Monmouth University released this week paint an overall picture that suggests even if voters believe Reade’s allegations, it may not be enough for them to dump Biden.

“It doesn’t change the underlying fundamental,” Murray said of what the results suggest. “That could change, we could get more allegations [from] more women. But right now, it’s not enough — even for people who believe it, it’s not enough.”

The Monmouth national poll of 739 registered voters showed a clear partisan split: 50 percent of Republicans said the allegation was probably true, compared to 17 percent who said it probably was not true; 55 percent of Democrats said it was probably not true compared to 20 percent who believed it was true. Independents were more likely than not to believe Reid’s claim; 43 percent said they believed it was true compared to 22 percent who said it was not true. Another 35 percent of voters said they had no opinion.

“There are Democratic-leaning independents in there — this is the group that says, ‘I believe this but I’m still voting for Biden,’” Murray said. “They’re not hardcore Democrats, but they’re anti-Trump people.”

A Monday Morning Consult poll of 1,991 registered voters nationwide with a 2 percentage point margin of error found 26 percent of voters said the Democratic Party should select a different nominee after watching Biden’s denial of the allegations in an MSNBC interview, while 61 percent said Biden should remain the Democratic nominee.

Overall, 41 percent of voters of all parties in the Morning Consult poll said they found Biden’s denial credible, while 38 percent said it was not credible (another 22 percent said they didn’t know). Morning Consult found 61 percent of Democrats consider Biden’s denials credible, compared to just 19 percent who said they didn’t.

The poll also found a noticeable gender and generational split on the issue; Democratic women were 12 percentage points less likely to believe Biden’s denial than Democratic men. Similarly, Democrats under the age of 45 were 14 points less likely to believe Biden than Democrats 45 and up. But when it came to the question of actually replacing Biden as the nominee ticket, just 24 percent of Democratic men and 28 percent of Democratic women said yes.

There was a much bigger generational split on this question: 40 percent of Democrats under 45 polled said Biden should be replaced, while just 15 percent of Democrats ages 45 and older said he should be.

The finding that younger voters were more likely to want Biden replaced matches up with Suffolk pollster Paleologos’s recent USA Today poll of more than 600 Sanders voters, which found 22 percent of those voters said they’d vote for a third-party candidate and 60 percent said they were “not very or not excited at all” about Biden’s nomination. Sanders largely captured the youth vote during the 2020 primaries, while Biden did well with older voters.

“That’s the Democratic wheelhouse for volunteers,” Paleologos said. “And here they are saying by a clear majority that they’re not excited. So Biden needs to be mindful of that, too.”

The Tuesday Morning Consult and Politico poll (also with a 2-point margin of error) found 32 percent of voters said the Reade allegations made it somewhat or much less likely they’d vote for Biden, while 42 percent said it made no difference either way. That poll also found 36 percent of voters said the Democratic Party should “definitely” or “probably” select a different nominee, compared to 40 percent who said “definitely” or “probably” not.

“Right now he’s doing well in the polling, but that could turn on a dime,” Paleologos said. “If there is other information that’s sitting out there that contradicts that, then I think his approach to the issue is going to be key, especially among swing voters.”

How the Biden campaign is responding to the allegations

Biden’s campaign was already making outreach to women a substantial part of its operation, well before Reade’s allegations surfaced.

Now, Biden is walking a tightrope. The former vice president has stated that “unequivocally, this claim is simply not true,” but he has also encouraged journalists to further investigate and vet Reade’s claims. Biden’s campaign recently wrote to the secretary of the US Senate asking to make public any records of a sexual harassment complaint against him (the Senate has denied Biden’s request).

“My knowledge that it isn’t true does nothing to shake my belief that women have to be able to be heard and that all the claims be taken seriously,” Biden said at a recent fundraiser. “I know that this claim has no merit. But as a candidate for president, I’m accountable to the American people. And I welcome that accountability and the scrutiny of the press as well.”

Biden needs women to turn out for him in order to win in November; as a voting bloc, they can’t be underestimated. Women are far more likely to consider themselves Democrats or leaning Democratic than men, and the gap between women and men has consistently grown since 2012, when women voted for Barack Obama over Mitt Romney by 11 percentage points. In 2016, that gap widened to 13 points for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump, and increased to 19 points for Democratic House candidates over Republican ones in 2018.

In March, Biden announced he’d pick a woman for his running mate and promised to appoint a black woman to the US Supreme Court if elected president. His pledge to select a woman vice president was a tacit recognition of how big a role women have in the Democratic Party; the 2016 nominee was a woman, and women candidates and voters alike powered Democratic wins in the 2018 midterms.

Not only do Reade’s claims put a question mark over Biden’s record on women’s issues, they could also give Republicans ammunition to muddy the waters on the central theme to Biden’s candidacy: restoring “the soul of the country, the character of our people.”

It’s far too early to tell whether Republicans will be successful in that attempt, Murray said.

“We just don’t have enough information yet in the polling data to suggest where a tipping point might be where it may start swinging voters against Biden on that issue or neutralize that campaign strategy for Biden,” he told Vox.