#MeToo and the Midterms

With the 2018 election now in full swing, the Ms. Blog is excited to bring you content presented in conjunction with Gender Watch 2018, a project of the Barbara Lee Family Foundation and the Center for American Women and Politics. They’ll be tracking, analyzing and illuminating gender dynamics during election season—so check back with us regularly!

The issue of sexual harassment has become a dominant topic in American politics, fueled by the rapid ascent of the #MeToo movement. Although the reasons that a record number of first-time women candidates have entered the political ring are numerous, several have indicated that the issue of sexual harassment was one important component of that decision. Michigan Attorney General Candidate Dana Nessel even framed the issue as the predominant one in a bold campaign ad, asking voters: “Who can you trust most not to show you their penis in a professional setting?” (Her response? The candidate who does not have one.)

The #MeToo movement has pushed some women to get more involved in American politics—but what about voters? Will attitudes about sexual harassment shape their decisions in the 2018 congressional midterms? And if so, which voters?

A new survey conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) in March queried Americans nationally about their attitudes on sexual harassment and their voting intentions when it comes to Congressional elections. Despite revealing a gender gap, consistent with other analyses, in respondents’ intention to vote for a “generic” Democratic or Republican candidate, gender is no match for partisanship when it comes to predicting intended vote choice for Congress.

Strong majorities of partisans of both sexes indicate that if the congressional election were held today, they would vote for their party’s congressional nominee. Among Independents, defined here as Independents and leaners together, however, there remains a gender gap: 57 percent of women would vote for a Democratic candidate, compared with just 44 percent of men. 

What about attitudes concerning sexual harassment? PRRI asked survey respondents to what extent Americans agree that “most sexual harassment claims are just the result of misunderstandings between women and men.” The vast majority of likely voters disagree with that sentiment, by a ratio of close three to one, although there are modest gender differences—77 percent of women disagree with that sentiment compared with 71 percent of men. However, Republican females are far more likely to agree that such claims are a result of a misunderstanding between women and men (34 percent) compared with Democratic women (14 percent) or Independent women (25 percent).

But do these attitudes toward sexual harassment affect congressional vote choice intentions? If the congressional election were held today, 58 percent of Americans who disagree that sexual harassment claims are just a misunderstanding would vote for the Democratic candidate, compared with 38 of Americans who would cast their ballot for a Republican candidate. That’s a sizable gap—which reveals that Americans who trend Democratic in their voting behavior are far more likely to believe that sexual harassment is a serious problem.

By contrast, 63 percent of Americans who agree with the notion that sexual harassment claims are a misunderstanding back the Republican candidate. At the opposite end, among women who disagree that sexual harassment is the result of a misunderstanding, 63 percent intend to vote for a Democrat this fall.

Concern about sexual harassment does not appear to lead Republican women, however, to buck their party by backing Democrats for Congress. Those Republican women who disagree that sexual harassment claims are a result of misunderstanding are still strongly supportive of GOP congressional candidates in the midterms—a mere three percent say that they will vote for a Democrat. The only place where a gender gap emerges is among Independents—in this case, 60 percent of women who disagree with this claim are trending Democratic in their intended vote choice for Congress, compared with just 50 percent of men.

Similarly, when asked whether “real experiences of sexual harassment or assault that are not reported or are not believed” or “false accusations made about sexual harassment or assault” are a bigger problem in the U.S. today, it is only among Independents that a notable—and gendered—effect on vote choice appears.

Independent women who believe false accusations are a bigger problem—a clear minority of such likely voters—are 20 percent more likely than Independent men to indicate that they still plan to vote Democratic in the midterm elections. Perhaps the more interesting story in this data point involves men who are Independents: those who believe false accusations are a bigger problem do not seem very keen on voting for Democratic candidates.

For Republicans and Democrats alike, holding either position does not appear to impact their strong desire to back a fellow partisan for Congress. Close to half of Republican men—48 percent—believe that false accusations are a bigger problem than real experiences of sexual harassment or assault, compared with just 21 percent of Democratic men. Likewise, Republican women are far more likely to agree with their Republican male counterparts than Democratic women, of whom just seven percent believe that false accusations are a bigger problem.

These data indicate that party colors the view of this issue for men and women instead of these attitudes disrupting women or men’s partisan loyalties.

This survey reveals several things about the #MeToo Movement and the midterms: Women do appear more likely than men to believe unreported sexual assault is a big problem, and are less likely to buy into the notion that sexual harassment is a product of a misunderstanding between men and women. But while there initially does appear to be a relationship, even when controlling for gender, between such attitudes and propensity to vote for a Democratic congressional candidate, party matters for more to voters’ choices—so while a sizable number of Republican women identify sexual harassment as a serious problem, it still doesn’t appear to shake their faith in their party, which arguably has taken a less vocal stand about eliminating sexual harassment than the Democratic Party.

Perhaps the one area in which a gender gap emerges on sexual harassment issues that could benefit the Democratic Party in this 2018 midterm concerns Independent voters. Independent women are trending Democratic as we head into the summer, and are significantly less likely to believe than their male counterparts that false accusations are a bigger problem than sexual harassment that goes unreported or not believed. Democratic campaigns could target such women with an emphasis on these issues.

At the same time, however, this could provoke a backlash among Independent men, who show a greater reluctance to vote Democrats more generally. Though not reported in the last figure, Independent men are essentially twice as likely to back Republican candidates when they believe that both sexual harassment is really just a misunderstanding between men and women and that false accusations of sexual harassment is the more serious problem.

Most Americans recognize sexual harassment as a valid concern—but party remains the key determinant of vote choice come November.


Melissa Deckman, PhD, is the Louis L. Goldstein Professor of Public Affairs at Washington College and chairs the board of PRRI, the Public Religion Research Institute.