The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Me Too is still a movement. But many Democratic voters say it isn’t a top priority in 2020.

Women march in support of survivors of sexual assault in Los Angeles in 2017.
Women march in support of survivors of sexual assault in Los Angeles in 2017. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

LAS VEGAS — Lucy Ouano, a Democratic retiree in Las Vegas, is a big supporter of the Me Too movement. But she says her party’s overriding focus needs to be on defeating President Trump.

“Let’s get on with it,” she said.

Ouano is tired of seeing Democrats damage each other with Me Too allegations while Republicans act with impunity, she said. “It’s called party cannibalism,” Ouano told The Washington Post, sipping a drink in a Panera restaurant. “You don’t put down your own party’s candidate to make yourself look better.”

Such sentiments underline a mystery of the Democratic race for the presidential nomination: why #MeToo, an enormously consequential social movement in recent years, is playing such a small role in the primary compared with issues like race, immigration and health care.

The candidate who has most forcefully identified herself with the movement, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), is hardly registering in the polls. Former vice president Joe Biden, who has been accused of insensitivity to women, is leading.

“I’m sure that there will be policy around gun violence. I’m sure that there will be policy around economic violence. . . . There should also be policy around sexual violence,” said Tarana Burke, a civil rights activist who founded the Me Too movement. “We are not just survivors, right? We are a constituency, and we’re a base.”

But she’s worried that isn’t happening. Burke said she is “painfully aware” of how little issues like workplace protections, violence against women and sex education come up on the campaign trail.

In interviews, Democratic voters cite various reasons for not putting Me Too at the top of their agenda. To many, the need to oust Trump is such an emergency that all other considerations fade. While the accusations of sexual misconduct against Trump and his demeaning comments about women bother them, that is only one complaint among many they have against the president.

There is also an internal division in the Democratic Party between those who believe figures like Biden should be held accountable and those who deem their mistakes forgivable, especially compared with the allegations against Trump, who has been accused by over a dozen women.

A year after it began, has #MeToo become a global movement?

The Me Too movement’s low profile in the campaign is especially notable given the impact it has had on liberal politics and society more broadly for nearly two years. Since late 2017, when the New York Times reported on sexual assault allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, the Me Too campaign has toppled entertainers, politicians and business leaders.

In 2018, Democrats mobilized behind sexual misconduct allegations against Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh and Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore. In the 2018 congressional midterms, many Democratic women defeated male GOP House incumbents, a personification of the movement that made Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) speaker and empowered figures like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).

But this moment is different, Democratic strategist Rebecca Katz said, because the Democratic Party is looking to forge the broadest possible coalition heading into the 2020 election.

“It’s just more than the Me Too movement. There’s a lot of different movements converging,” Katz said, naming for example Black Lives Matter and the push to tackle climate change. “There’s a lot more that we need from our campaigns, and we need to nominate someone who can speak to much more of the broader base of the Democratic coalition.”

Even many voters who say they care about women’s issues often cite other concerns as more important to them in this campaign.

Stefan Bernal, 30, who left his on-call shift at an organ and tissue transplant clinic to attend a rally for Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) in Las Vegas, said he was “pro-Me Too movement” but unlikely to vote based on that. His biggest issue, he said, was “getting money out of politics.”

In 2016, the Sanders campaign faced allegations that some women had been mistreated by male staffers, something for which the candidate has apologized. Many of his current backers say that hasn’t affected their support for him.

One Sanders supporter, Sebastian Pepperell, a 29-year-old teacher in Las Vegas, argued that “there’s always a statistical chance” harassment will occur in a big organization. The campaign’s issues, he said, had less “to do with Bernie directly — more the culture that we live in.”

Similarly, interviews suggest that most Democrats who hold Biden’s actions against him were never fans in the first place. Shortly before Biden announced his candidacy, several women came forward to say he had been inappropriately physical with them, hugging or touching them in ways they didn’t appreciate.

As Biden rises, Lucy Flores watches from a distance

Democratic strategist Basil Smikle said such accounts are unlikely to diminish Biden’s support. The former vice president had high poll numbers even as the claims against him were emerging in the spring — before he even entered the race — and he continues to lead his fellow Democrats in national and state surveys.

“Voters compartmentalize a lot. If they support a candidate, they will find a way to maintain that support even if there are elements of that candidate’s history or policy background that they may find uncomfortable,” Smikle said.

The Democrats who do worry about Biden’s actions acknowledge that most in their party don’t agree. Olivia McLaughlin, 27, a graduate student studying sociology and gender and women’s studies at Western Michigan University, rejected the defense often used by Biden supporters to explain his behavior toward women.

“I don’t buy the whole ‘social norms are changing,’ ” McLaughlin said. “This stuff has never been okay. We’ve been saying this forever.”

Lucy Flores, the first and most outspoken woman to accuse Biden of acting inappropriately, said she worries about what the lack of attention means for how voters value women’s issues.

“Women are just still not being treated as a priority — that’s what that says to me,” said Flores, a former Nevada state legislator who said Biden made her feel uncomfortable at a rally in 2014, smelling her hair and kissing her on the back of the head.

“Issues of race have definitely been taken very seriously,” she said. “Issues of sexism, issues of violence against women — that doesn’t galvanize people in the same way.”

Democrats also seem far less focused on electing the first female president, an issue that rallied many Democratic women behind Hillary Clinton in 2016. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.) are among those polling strongly in the primary, but the historic nature of their potential presidency is not central to their campaign messaging.

Tessa Schutt, 20, a college student in Grand Rapids, Mich., said she cares deeply about climate change and homelessness.

She finds it obvious that women are as qualified as men to be president but said she’ll base her decision on other factors. “I don’t care if America is ready for a female president — it’s past time,” Schutt said. But “it’s not something that would make me” vote for a candidate.

Gillibrand’s presidential campaign problem: A crowded niche

Perhaps no candidate is as closely tied to the #MeToo movement as Gillibrand. In 2017, she was the first senator to call for then-Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to resign after sexual harassment allegations against him surfaced. (Many other lawmakers echoed her demand soon afterward.)

Gillibrand speaks often about women’s issue on the trail. Even so, she finds herself polling at less than 1 percent in most surveys. Several party donors, including George Soros, have criticized her for her position on Franken, and some voters say she acted for her own political gain to force out a highly effective spokesman for the Democratic Party.

Kate Faggella, 66, a retiree in Akron, Ohio, said she admires Gillibrand for her strong stance on women’s issues. But Faggella was a Franken fan, and she has no intention of supporting Gillibrand in the primary.

“Her reaction was knee-jerk. I know she was playing to her base,” Faggella said. “I’m just not sure about her. I don’t know that I trust her to be open or just to be a reactionary to whatever information is out there. She’s going to react and [do] what plays well with her base.”

Meredith Kelly, Gillibrand’s communications director, said in a statement: “This all comes down to whether we value women in the workplace and in our society, and Senator Gillibrand is proud to be a leader in that fight, which we just can’t afford to lose. It’s not always easy to stand up to men who are popular or good at their day jobs, but Senator Gillibrand is brave enough to do it anyways.”

James Katzen, 70, a retired stage hand from Las Vegas, said the Me Too movement has been good for society. But he added that the allegations against Democrats do not compare to those against Trump.

Regarding Democrats’ indiscretions, “Maybe it’s not right, but it’s not that much wrong,” Katzen said, brandishing a National Organization for Women sign curbside at a pro-immigration rally. “I think we’re too quick to run everybody down. We can call things out that are wrong, and then leave it alone.”