No presidential candidate wants to be on the wrong end of an “October surprise”: Major news breaks at the last minute — maybe the media unearths an old videotape, or the FBI resuscitates a closed investigation into a particular collection of emails. The campaign has to do damage control with limited time before Election Day.
October is still a long way away. It was March 25 when Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer, publicly accused former vice president Joe Biden — the presumptive Democratic nominee for president — of digitally penetrating her with his fingers while she worked in his office in 1993. On Monday, Reade’s former neighbor corroborated Reade’s account in an interview with Business Insider, saying Reade told her about the assault in the mid-90s, soon after Reade says it occurred. Biden spoke about the allegation for the first time Friday morning, saying unequivocally: “This never happened.”
On Friday evening, Biden’s campaign released a letter asking the secretary of the Senate for help determining whether Reade filed a complaint. “I would ask that the public release include not only a complaint if one exists, but any and all other documents in the records that relate to the allegation,” Biden wrote. (Biden initially made this request to the National Archives, who said it would not have access to such records.)
While many praised Biden’s response — commending him for addressing the allegations head-on, while still emphasizing the importance of believing women — others say it’s not enough. It’s still relatively early in the election cycle, some point out. The decision is not quite final. There is still time for the Democratic Party to go another way.
“Such strong pieces of corroboration should surely imperil Biden’s position at the top of the ticket,” Rebecca Traister wrote in an essay for the Cut, “though it remains to be seen whether — in the midst of the covid crisis and with all the other candidates out of contention — there is any chance that they will.” On Friday, Alex Pareen of the New Republic argued that other candidates could “unsuspend” their campaigns.
Biden will almost certainly become the Democratic nominee: Since 1972, when the current primary system began, no candidate for either major party has ever failed to clinch the nomination after becoming the presumptive nominee, which Biden became when Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) dropped out of the race on April 8. To depart from such a long-standing tradition, something “even more major would need to come to light,” said Caitlin Jewitt, a professor of politics at Virginia Tech, who specializes in presidential primaries and caucuses. Theoretically, it’s possible that Biden could step aside. But it’s not likely.
It would be “chaos” for the Democratic Party to pivot to a different nominee at this point in the race, says Jewitt. After a long and taxing primary season, Democrats finally seem to have coalesced around Biden, who has been polling well in key battleground states against President Trump. (Biden is up by an average of 6 points in Michigan, 5 points in Pennsylvania and 3 points in both Florida and Wisconsin.)
“Especially during coronavirus and the economic crisis that the U.S. is experiencing right now, the Democratic Party has an incentive to appear unified and with clear, strong leadership,” said Jewitt.
This kind of division within the Democratic Party is exactly what Trump wants, said Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod, a former spokesperson for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. The calls for Biden to step down are coming from people who didn’t want him to be the nominee in the first place, she said.
“It’s silly talk. I think maybe it gives the far left or people who were not supportive of Joe Biden something to hang their hat on. But it’s not realistic.”
Reade’s allegations might dissuade some voters from turning out for Biden, but a new nominee would likely be far more harmful to the Democrats’ chances of defeating Trump, said Jennifer Lawless, a professor of women and politics at the University of Virginia.
“It would make the Democratic Party look utterly incompetent,” she said.
More evidence in support of Reade’s claims could potentially change the Democratic Party’s calculus. But that evidence would likely need to be extremely conclusive and damaging, said Lawless — not just more corroborating accounts, like the statements from Reade’s former neighbor — but a “smoking gun” more in line with Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape, where Trump admitted to sexually assaulting women.
While that kind of evidence did not derail Trump’s presidential campaign, Lawless says, the Democrats have “held themselves to a higher bar” by harshly condemning Trump and Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh for the allegations wagered against them. When former Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) was accused of sexual assault, several high profile Democrats publicly called for his resignation, which led him to eventually step down.
The situation could also shift with public opinion, said Lawless.
“If public opinion polls start to change in the next few weeks, and Biden looks like he is faring less well in some of these battleground states, all bets are off.”
Unless new information emerges, Lawless doesn’t expect the Reade allegations to have a major impact on Democratic voter behavior. That might be different if Biden was not going up against Trump, she says. But evaluated against Trump’s long history of sexual assault allegations — and the hard evidence of the “Access Hollywood” tape — Democratic voters concerned with these issues will likely still side with Biden, said Lawless.
“As awful as this is, the worst case for Biden is that he’s now on a level playing field with Trump on this dimension [of sexual assault allegations].”
If “smoking gun” evidence did surface, and pressures mounted for Biden to step aside, he would probably have to do so voluntarily, said Jewitt. Biden has already won too many delegates to lose the nomination in any other way. If that happened, a host of other Democratic candidates would rush to reinstate their campaigns. After the first round of votes at the convention, there would likely be no clear winner, said Jewitt, at which point any other person would be free to jump into the race. (Jewitt has fielded many questions in the past month from people eager to know if New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo could run for president. In this scenario, the answer is yes.)
Based on his age — 77 — Biden’s vice presidential pick was always going to be particularly important, said Lawless. It’s even more important now. Going forward, the vice presidential nominee — who Biden has promised will be a woman — will be called on to defend Biden with regards to these allegations, probably more frequently than Biden is called on to defend himself.
It’s a “tough spot” to be in, Lawless says. But that surely won’t deter prospective nominees. If Biden wins, the vice president will be better positioned for the presidency than any woman in history. Years from now, she could be the one deciding how her party responds to a woman who comes forward to share her story of sexual assault.