Joe Biden is not yet an official candidate for president, but he is already on the defensive. Two Democratic women, Lucy Flores and Amy Lappos, came forward in the past week with accounts of how the former vice president made them feel uncomfortable by touching them and invading their personal space. Neither woman claimed Biden’s actions were criminal or sexual, but their accounts took a yearslong concern about the ex-veep from the hypothetical to the concrete. The question is no longer whether Biden has made women feel uncomfortable in the past; it is how voters will react now that they know he has.
I don’t think these two stories by themselves should disqualify Biden from running for president—and to be clear, I haven’t seen any Democratic powerbroker actually suggest a political death sentence for Biden. But I do believe that his behavior in the past, and his justification of it in the present, neatly illustrates the larger case against his bid to become his party’s nominee. As my former colleague Michelle Goldberg put in in the New York Times: Biden “is a product of his time, but that time is up.”
Still, I doubt Biden’s fans are going to desert him over these types of offenses.
For starters, Biden’s penchant for physical contact, particularly with women, was no secret. As Katherine Miller put in BuzzFeed, “Everybody already knows what they think about Joe Biden putting his hands on people, because we’ve all seen this happen in public.” And yet despite all the photos of Biden getting uncomfortably close to others, no one in the potential Democratic 2020 field has a higher approval rating than Uncle Joe, even when you account for his national profile. More tellingly, many Democrats who don’t name Biden as their first choice appear just fine with the idea of him as the eventual nominee. In a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll last month, a combined 73 percent of Democrats said they’re either enthusiastic (33 percent) or comfortable (40 percent) with Biden as a candidate, while just 25 percent said they either had some reservations (19 percent) or were very uncomfortable (6 percent) with him. Biden has a history of doing and saying cringe-worthy things but, for whatever reason, most Democratic voters aren’t yet cringing.
Flores’ and Lappos’ stories and the clamor they’ve ignited are unlikely to change that. Biden has already faced serious questions about a host of his past positions that look downright conservative by today’s standards, including his mishandling of the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas hearings, something he’s expressed regret over but has nonetheless not actually apologized directly for to Hill. And yet he’s been the polling leader for the 2020 nomination pretty much since Hillary Clinton lost in 2016.
While some voters will now rethink things, it’s hard to imagine that those most likely to sour on him were on the Biden train to begin with. Biden’s base is old—much older than the other septuagenarian in the race, as CNN data analyst Henry Enten documented:
The available polling suggests that older voters are less receptive than younger ones to taking these kinds of charges seriously. Older voters are more likely to express doubts about the #MeToo movement and whether the past actions of men should be disqualifying in the present. A Pew Research Center poll from last spring suggests that the older people are, the more likely they are to believe that the increased attention on sexual harassment has made navigating workplace interactions more difficult for men. A BuzzFeed/Ipsos poll from this past fall found a stark age gap when it comes to believing victims of sexual harassment or sexual assault: 65 percent of adults under 35 said they should be believed no matter what, compared to just 38 percent of people older than 54 who said the same thing. An NPR/Ipsos poll from last fall found that roughly half of voters 35 or older said they were still unclear on what crosses the line in terms of sexual misconduct. And a Vox/Morning Consult survey from last month found that women 35 or older were about half as likely as women under 35 to say it’s “acceptable” for some men to lose their jobs over allegations of sexual misconduct. If older voters have doubts about sexual misconduct, it stands to reason they’ll be even more skeptical of the gray area Biden finds himself in now.
And then there’s the backlash to consider, whereby some voters actually rally to Biden’s defense. Consider, for instance, the response from Theda Skocpol, a 71-year-old Harvard political scientist, who made it clear she has no interest in a circular firing squad with Donald Trump in the White House. “Is this the kind of society we want to live in—where right-wingers can do any vicious thing they want to anyone and shrug it off, while people on the center-left are supposed to expel from public life anyone who says a single wrong word or has done something benignly intended in the past that now does not fit changed norms?” she wrote in a letter to the Times. “Not me, that is not the kind of America I want to live in. That is not the kind of Democratic primary I want to participate in.”
None of this is to say that Biden will emerge from this storm unscathed. At the very least, it’s put him on the defensive at a time when he’d prefer to be building momentum ahead of his planned launch. But as much as I hope Flores’ and Lappos’ stories motivate voters to more fully reckon with what Biden’s worldview would mean for his candidacy and potential presidency, I’ve yet to find reason to believe that will happen.