Much about the 2016 presidential election – including its result – was surprising to political analysts and scholars. But the fact that Donald Trump was not derailed by multiple accusations of sexual harassment and assault, an on-tape admission of sexual assault, and repeated sexist attacks while on the campaign trail should not have been a surprise. As scholar and commentator Melissa Harris-Perry noted at a post-election event with The Atlantic underwritten by Presidential Gender Watch, “I am not even vaguely surprised that sexual assault would not even be a disqualifier for the American presidency.” She added that, for most of American history, both racism and sexism have been pre-requisites to becoming president.
But that’s all changed with #meToo and the political mobilization of women in 2018, right? Maybe not. While allegations of inappropriate behavior and inaction to punish it have forced resignations and derailed campaigns in the past 18 months, voters’ intolerance for misogynist behavior and beliefs is far from universal.
One month before Alabamans cast their ballots in the special U.S. Senate election to replace Jeff Sessions, Republican nominee Roy Moore was accused of multiple counts of sexual misconduct – specifically pursuing and engaging in sexual acts with minors. Though Moore was defeated on Election Day, over 650,000 Alabama voters – nearly half of those who turned out in December 2017 – still voted for him. Exit polls showed that 35% of all voters said the allegations against Moore were not a factor in deciding their vote; 76% of those who were unaffected by the allegations voted for Moore.
Seven months after Moore’s defeat, Republican voters in Virginia selected Corey Stewart as their nominee to challenge incumbent U.S. Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) this fall. Much of the coverage of Stewart has focused on his ties to white nationalism – which has long promoted misogyny as an affirmation of white male supremacy, but just one month before the primary election Stewart tweeted that the Boy Scouts acceptance of girls – or, as he phrased it, “gender fluidity,” – was proof of leftism “infecting” the nation. Nearly half (44.9%) of Republican primary voters, or 136,544 to be exact, voted for Stewart on June 12, 2018.
One week later, brothel owner Dennis Hof – a perennial candidate and author of The Art of the Pimp – defeated a sitting state assemblyman in Nevada’s Republican primaries. Two months earlier, two women came forward with accusations of sexual assault against Hof; a week after he won the nomination, a 2005 report accusing him of rape was exposed by local media. He won 42.8% of votes cast in the Republican primary in Nevada’s 36th Assembly district.
Leniency for these allegations, beliefs, or behaviors seems to be greater – albeit not at all guaranteed – in Republican primaries, with repercussions perhaps more likely among a general election electorate. This aligns with research by Dr. Erin Cassese that reveals partisan differences in beliefs about gender roles and discrimination. She finds that Republican women are “more likely to endorse stereotypes about men and women and to prefer traditional power relationships between men and women” than Democratic women and men. Moreover, Cassese’s analysis of 2016 voters reveals, “Republican women are more likely than Democratic women to see differences between the sexes as the result of the individual choices women make rather than systematic discrimination.” Her findings align with 2018 survey data from the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), analyzed by Dr. Melissa Deckman for Gender Watch 2018. In her analysis, Deckman finds that the majority of Americans who view sexual harassment claims as “misunderstandings between women and men” support Republican candidates. She also finds that Republicans are more likely than Democrats to believe that false accusations are a bigger problem than real experiences of sexual harassment or assault.
Previous surveys from PRRI found that Republican voters were also more likely than Democrats to support traditional gender roles, which may indicate that recent revelations about Republican House nominee Mark Harris, who defeated incumbent Robert Pittenger in North Carolina’s 9th congressional district, may do little to depress his vote among Republican supporters. In 2013, Harris gave a sermon in which he questioned women’s prioritization of careers and independence as contrary to “biblical womanhood.”
But leniency for disempowering, degrading, or even abusing women is not limited to Republican voters. In the Democratic primary for South Carolina’s 5th congressional district, Archie Parnell – who, about three weeks before Election Day, admitted to physically abusing his ex-wife in the 1970s – won 60% of the vote, besting the next competitor by more than 40 percentage points. And history proves countless examples of men on both sides of the aisle who’ve been excused of bad behavior against women by their supporters – men and women alike, including former President Bill Clinton.
The falls of major political figures this cycle like Attorney General Eric Schneiderman (D-NY), Senator Al Franken (D-MN), and Congressmen Blake Farenthold (R-TX), Trent Franks (R-AZ) and John Conyers (D-MI), among others across levels of office, are certainly indicators that egregious abuses of women – once made public – may be more disqualifying today than in the past, but questions remain about for whom these behaviors and beliefs about gender are disqualifying (and for whom they are not).
Just last week, President Trump hired former Fox News executive Bill Shine as deputy chief of staff for communications. Shine has been accused of actively working to both cover up and silence allegations of sexual harassment and abuse by other Fox News executives and on-air personalities. Shine’s hiring is yet another example of how a misogynist past does not preclude holding political power at present. But a President’s personnel decisions are not subject to voter referendum – at least not immediately. Beyond the election results in 2018, the 2020 presidential election will provide another test for voters’ tolerance of misogyny in the White House and across our political institutions.
Will the gendered landscape of political campaigns shift significantly before then? Maybe. We may just be surprised.