Now that the Democratic primary field has been whittled down to two major candidates, the race is on for targeting a coveted constituency: LGBTQ voters.
At a rally Thursday night in Phoenix, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders attacked former Vice President Biden’s 1996 support for “don’t ask, don’t tell,” a military policy that required gay, lesbian, and bisexual troops to stay in the closet in order to serve. The Biden campaign, meanwhile, released a comprehensive plan for LGBTQ equality that same night. The plan includes support for the Equality Act, federal legislation to add protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity to federal civil rights law, and a repeal of President Donald Trump’s transgender military ban, among other key LGBTQ policy concerns.
Both candidates appear to be making a play for support from LGBTQ voters, who turned out in record numbers in Super Tuesday states. Almost one in 10 voters from 12 of the 14 states that voted this week identified as LGBTQ, with Sanders winning almost 40 percent of them, according to NBC News exit polling data. Biden, in turn, got support from just 19 percent of LGBTQ Super Tuesday voters, despite receiving a Monday endorsement from former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the first-ever openly gay competitive candidate for president.
More significantly, Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren got support from 21 percent of LGBTQ voters on Super Tuesday, despite not finishing higher than third place in any of the contests. It appears that both the Biden and Sanders campaigns are making appeals to LGBTQ voters and allies who previously supported Warren or Buttigieg.
“On Super Tuesday and across the early states, LGBTQ voters have shown up in record numbers and cemented our status as a crucial constituency to court,” Human Rights Campaign national press secretary Lucas Acosta told Vox.
It’s too early to tell if Biden can close the gap with LGBTQ voters, who tend to skew more progressive, as the race for the Democratic presidential nomination wears on. But it’s no surprise that progressive queer and trans people are especially invested in this election after repeated attacks on LGBTQ rights by the Trump administration.
Both campaigns have plans for LGBTQ equality — and both have experienced a few flubs
The Biden campaign drew criticism last November for not having an explicit LGBTQ equality plan on its website, though it would later add a few details. The campaign finally released a comprehensive plan Thursday evening, and it includes several standard Democratic ideas — health care protections for trans people among them — but also offers specifics that aren’t currently listed in Sanders’s LGBTQ plan.
Biden’s plan seeks to protect LGBTQ asylum seekers; reinstitute Obama-era federal prison guidelines to house trans inmates according to their gender identity; reinstitute guidelines banning federally funded shelters from housing homeless trans people according to their assigned sex at birth; put forth efforts to destigmatize and decriminalize HIV transmission; offer protections for LGBTQ seniors; and offer support for a federal ban on conversion therapy.
A Sanders campaign spokesperson told Vox that the senator supports each of those reforms as well, but that they’re included in other issue plans. For example, trans homeless protections are included in the Sanders housing plan, and trans asylum-seeker protections are in his immigration plan.
Amid the current conservative effort across many states to ban access to puberty blockers for trans minors, spokespeople for both campaigns told Vox that their candidates oppose state-level bans and stressed that their respective health care plans would cover gender-affirming treatment for trans adolescents.
Both campaigns have also attempted to stress their respective candidates’ records on LGBTQ issues throughout the election cycle, but have each run into questions over their handling of queer issues on the campaign trail. There were two LGBTQ-focused presidential forums within weeks of each other last fall, and while Sanders didn’t attend either, Biden faltered in both.
At an Iowa LGBTQ forum on September 20, Biden had a tense moment following several sharp questions by Cedar Rapids Gazette columnist Lyz Lenz and later drew fire for allegedly calling her “a real sweetheart” backstage. On October 10, at a forum hosted by the Human Rights Campaign and televised on CNN, Biden referenced gay bath houses in San Francisco in a bizarre tangent while attempting to speak to his record on LGBTQ issues. Sanders, meanwhile, didn’t attend the first forum because of a previous commitment, and the second took place during his recovery from an early October heart attack.
The Sanders campaign, however, came under fire in late January after podcast host Joe Rogan, who has a history of making transphobic comments, endorsed the candidate. The endorsement likely would have been uncontroversial for trans people, had the Sanders campaign not produced a video touting Rogan’s support.
“I think I'll probably vote for Bernie... He’s been insanely consistent his entire life. He’s basically been saying the same thing, been for the same thing his whole life. And that in and of itself is a very powerful structure to operate from.” -Joe Rogan pic.twitter.com/fuQP0KwGGI— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) January 23, 2020
On Friday, a Sanders campaign spokesperson outlined to Vox several key differences in each candidates’ LGBTQ record, pointing specifically to Biden’s support for not only “don’t ask, don’t tell” (which Biden campaign officials disputed on Twitter) but also for the Defense of Marriage Act, which ensured that same-sex marriages would be considered second class even in states that allowed them. (President Bill Clinton signed DOMA into law in 1996.)
In the Trump era, however, LGBTQ voters need candidates who are looking forward, not necessarily to the past, and both candidates have unveiled strong plans for LGBTQ rights. There’s very little daylight between the competing LGBTQ plans outside of their differences on Medicare-for-all and the Affordable Care Act, and both are avowed queer and trans allies. Starker electoral contrasts on LGBTQ issues will be drawn once the primary campaign is over and whoever emerges from the fray begins to focus on beating Trump.
Since Trump took office in 2017, his administration has: banned trans troops from serving in the military; petitioned the Supreme Court to roll back employment protections for LGBTQ workers under Title VII; proposed a rule to allow federal contractors to discriminate against LGBTQ employees; proposed a rule to undo Affordable Care Act nondiscrimination protections for trans patients; allowed federally funded shelters to bar trans people from facilities consistent with their gender identity; and required prisons to house trans prisoners according to their assigned sex at birth.
Given the backdrop of Election Day in November, Acosta said that LGBTQ voters understand what’s at stake in every election and have taken it upon themselves to exercise their power at the ballot box. “LGBTQ people and our rights have been on the ballot repeatedly over the last decade, compelling us to get involved in politics rather than let others make decisions about us and our futures,” he said.
And it seems that after Tuesday’s exit polls, both Sanders and Biden are making a play for that involvement.