Friday was a busy day for Joe Biden. When the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee broke his silence and personally denied a sexual assault allegation by Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer, he covered multiple fronts. First, there was a Medium post in which Biden wrote that the allegations “aren’t true” and called on the National Archives to identify and release any record of a complaint made by the staffer. Then, he told Mika Brzezinski “it did not happen” in an MSNBC interview. Finally, there was a virtual fundraiser, where he assured Obama administration alumni that the claim “has no merit.”
And though the former vice president has said “it isn’t enough just to simply take my word for it,” several of his endorsers — many of them high-profile female Democrats — did just that.
“I know Joe Biden,” Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said on CNN Sunday. Sen. Elizabeth Warren told reporters the next day that she found Biden’s denial “credible” and “convincing.” Then, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told MSNBC that the issue, to her, was closed. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand will host a “Women for Biden” call on Thursday evening. Whitmer, Warren and Gillibrand are thought to be among the more than a dozen women who Biden is considering as a running mate.
As Biden seeks to unite the party by winning over younger and more liberal voters who supported his rivals during the primary race, progressive and women’s groups and voters are signaling that responding to the allegation cannot be a one-day event. Nor should Biden rely on surrogates to answer for him.
Some groups, along with women voters Biden will be relying on in November, warn that a reckoning may be coming for Democrats who are seen as distancing themselves from the #MeToo and #BelieveWomen movements they championed during the Senate confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who faced allegations of sexual misconduct that occurred in high school.
“How do we on the one hand shout out ‘believe women,’ but then not this one?” 62-year-old Laurie Steinke, a Democratic voter in Charleston, South Carolina, said.
In Biden’s case, Reade said in a March interview that he pinned her against a wall and digitally penetrated her in 1993 when she worked in his Senate office.
“I don’t know what the party needs to do, but the last thing that needs to be done is for it to be flippantly passed by or swept under the rug,” Iowa City resident Amy Chastain, 44, said of the allegation against Biden in an interview.
Though Chastain supported Warren in Iowa’s caucuses, she said she will back Biden to get President Donald Trump out of office. She worries, though, that some voters might stay home if they feel their choice is between two candidates who have both been accused of sexual assault. Trump has faced more than a dozen allegations of sexual assault or misconduct that he denies.
“How do we on the one hand shout out ‘believe women,’ but then not this one?”
Biden “should be speaking out profoundly against abuse of power and the systemic, historical problem that we have with men abusing that power,” Chastain said.
Democratic strategists supportive of Biden point to polling showing that the primary motivating factor for many Democrats this election cycle is beating Trump. They note that Biden faces one allegation of sexual assault while Trump faces many, cite the former senator’s role in passing the 1994 Violence Against Women Act, and highlight his stances on issues such as equal pay as differentiators with the current president.
“Women in this country sure know the difference between Donald Trump and Joe Biden on this issue and frankly a whole lot of others,” said Lily Adams, who advises Unite the Country, a super PAC supporting Biden’s candidacy.
Melissa Sayers, a 36-year-old paralegal in Montclair, New Jersey, whose opposition to Trump prompted her to return to college to get degrees in political science and law, said she was “resigned” to backing Biden in November despite the allegations “out of an urgency to replace Trump.”
“It’s not ideal, but it’s where we are,” Sayers said.
Biden’s campaign did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
The Democratic National Committee has rejected calls for an independent investigation of Reade’s claim, with Chairman Tom Perez saying he trusts Biden. Senate officials, citing confidentiality concerns, have said they cannot confirm whether there are records of a harassment complaint Reade said she filed. Biden’s surrogates have moved on to other topics. Biden has little to gain by further discussion of the allegation unless it becomes politically necessary, strategists said.
But the pressure may be building on him to do so.
At least two Democratic senators — Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Jeff Merkley of Oregon — have broken ranks to call for an independent review of Reade’s claim.
Biden has little to gain by further discussion of the allegation unless it becomes politically necessary, strategists said. But the pressure may be building on him to do so.
A Monmouth University poll released on Wednesday showed that 86 percent of registered voters are aware of the allegation. Thirty-seven percent said it was “probably true” and 32 percent said it was “probably not true.” Another 31 percent had no opinion.
Potentially more problematic for Biden: 45 percent of voters aged 18 to 34 said they think the allegation is probably true, and 43 percent of independent voters and 37 percent of voters in “swing” counties won by less than 10 points in 2016 thought so too. All are constituencies critical to Biden’s success in November.
The poll shows that some voters believe the allegation but it isn’t “enough to override their desire to oust Trump,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute. But Murray said the “outlook is murkier” for those who have yet to form an opinion, including “a number of Democratic-leaning independents who could potentially be swayed.”
A separate Morning Consult poll released earlier in the week showed that 37 percent of registered voters thought sexual harassment and misconduct is a “major issue” for Biden and another 25 percent thought it is a “minor issue” for him.
Michele Dauber, a Democratic fundraiser, Stanford University law professor and chair of the nonpartisan Enough is Enough Voter Project — which seeks to make violence against women a ballot-box issue — said she has been “deeply disappointed, sad and scared” watching Democrats’ response to Reade’s allegation, which is “certainly over the threshold for what deserves an investigation.”
“It is aberrant that this is not the next step,” said Dauber, who believes the DNC should hire one of many well-known firms that investigate such matters. Should such an inquiry conclude the allegation has merit, Dauber believes the party should consider an alternate candidate for the top of the Democratic ticket ahead of the Democratic National Convention in August.
“We’re not stuck with him,” Dauber added. “It’s not too late, the nominee is selected at the convention.”