Midterms may hinge on how voters view sexual misconduct

Midterms may hinge on how voters view sexual misconduct
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Republicans looking toward November lately have felt more optimistic. Tax reform has become more popular since its passage. The Democratic margin on the generic ballot has shrunk to about 6 percent. President Donald Trump's approval rating has ticked upwards to about 41 percent.

But that is hardly the end of the story. Prior to the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida, the White House was again in full crisis mode, deflecting multiple scandals by embracing an unrepentant demeanor. Whether decrying the lack of "due process" for men accused of sexual assault and domestic violence, or denying the severity of Russia's interference in the 2016 election after special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE issued 13 detailed indictments against Russian nationals and companies, the administration's response was characteristically devoid of facts and far afield from reality.

The other growing scandal involves women — and money, and not just "hush-money," but also how Trump purportedly used the Miss Universe beauty pageant to feather his own bed. First, there are two women — a porn star and a Playboy bunny — who each has alleged she had an extramarital affair with Trump prior to his becoming president. Both claim that those close to Trump either paid them for their silence and/or used their influence to keep these dalliances from becoming news. Aside from these sordid tales of consensual sex and secret-keeping, there are 19 other women who have alleged that Trump sexually assaulted them.


While these stories likely confirm the majority of the public's prior impressions about Trump's lack of honesty and admitted infidelities, it shouldn't be assumed that they will have no impact on the president's overall approval rating. As my past research on scandal shows, an incumbent's flawed character often is weighed against (and sometimes rationalized away because of) his or her policy positions (e.g., Tony Perkins' stance on Trump's behavior), but it still matters to voters.

What's more, sex scandals, unlike allegations of corruption or questions of foreign influence, are simple and easy to understand. This is one of the reasons that congressional incumbents with sex scandals often find themselves under pressure from party leaders to resign or retire — because defending a sexual misconduct scandal that happened (whether a consensual extramarital affair or sexual harassment or assault) is simply too hard to explain to the voters. Financial scandals (e.g., former Rep. Charlie RangelCharles (Charlie) Bernard RangelDem leaders avert censure vote against Steve King House Democrats offer measures to censure Steve King Democrats enter brave new world with House majority in Trump era MORE or Sen. Bob MenendezRobert (Bob) MenendezGovernment watchdog: 'No evidence' Pompeo violated Hatch Act with Kansas trips No time to be selling arms to the Philippines Senate panel approves Trump nominee under investigation MORE) often are so complicated (i.e., fraught with prior relationships, unclear conflicts of interest and complex reporting requirements) that voters are willing to give incumbents accused of wrongdoing the benefit of the doubt. In other words, voters judge right and wrong much faster.  

And when it comes to character issues, President TrumpDonald John TrumpSessions accepts 'Fox News Sunday' invitation to debate, Tuberville declines Priest among those police cleared from St. John's Church patio for Trump visit Trump criticizes CNN on split-screen audio of Rose Garden address, protesters clashing with police MORE already has a problem. Last summer, Pew Research found that more women than men (62 percent versus 53 percent) and more college-educated than non-college educated voters (64 percent versus 53 percent) dislike how Trump "comports himself."

Along these lines, journalist Ronald Brownstein recently dove into Gallup's data on presidential approval, analyzing how Trump fared during his first year among white voters in specific states. He concluded that for Democrats to be successful in the 2018 midterm elections, they had to "solve two intertwined demographic and geographic puzzles by winning more blue-collar women in the Rust Belt and more white-collar whites in the Sun Belt."

That’s because, although both groups' support for Trump had declined by about 12 percentage points over this past year, solid majorities of blue-collar white men in the Rust Belt and blue-collar whites in the Sun Belt continue to approve of the job the president is doing, bolstering his overall approval rating. As Gallup's map reveals, Trump's approval rating in many of these states remains between 40 and 49 percent. Importantly, a large majority of the competitive House seats held by Republicans are in these states.

Notably, all of these surveys were done prior to the most recent spate of scandals. And while it's tough to imagine that any new controversy will matter, given how many scandals Trump has survived, the trend lines shouldn't be dismissed. Certain voters are clearly tiring of Trump's shameful reality show, and his personal standing among these voters will decide the outcome of the midterm elections. Recalling the 2006 midterm election for a moment, no one should forget how quickly the tide turned in favor of the Democrats after the inappropriate messages surfaced between former Republican Rep. Mark Foley and a congressional page.

Trump's admitted ​extramarital affairs and numerous ​credible allegations of sexual ​misconduct​ prove​ that he has engaged in far more than "locker room talk." The only question that remains is whether wavering Republican voters (blue-collar women and white-collar college educated voters) decide that his unseemly behavior is acceptable for a president.

Lara M. Brown is director of the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University. Follow her on Twitter @LaraMBrownPhD.