Changing views on gender, harassment

Our country is experiencing an important moment right now concerning our response to sexual harassment.

Already it has changed mores, altered who we see on television and in movies, and removed political decisionmakers from Congress and state legislatures.

Such moments can affect elite behavior however, without altering public opinion.

Has this moment actually changed mass attitudes in some way?

First, it’s worth noting that sometimes elite behavior is out of sync with public demands. Not here.

Two thirds of Americans, including majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents told Quinnipiac pollsters that “If an elected official has been accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault by multiple people … that elected official should resign.”

A slightly lesser 62 percent claimed they would definitely not vote for a candidate “accused of sexual harassment by multiple women” even if they “agreed with them on the issues.”

Unfortunately, these questions were not asked in earlier years, so we don’t know whether they reflect a new, heightened sensitivity to the issue or long-held views.

Fifty-five percent believe recent allegations of sexual harassment in the news have given people a better understanding of the issue, while 42 percent disagree with that assessment.

Of course, perceived change is not the same thing as actual change. We can’t assume that, because people think understanding has improved, they’re correct.

But Americans also perceive changes within themselves. Half of men in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll said the recent stories caused them to rethink their own behavior and their interactions with women. That professed reexamination was more likely to take place among men under 50 than among their elders.

Again, though, that doesn’t speak to real change.

Fortunately, a pair of surveys from PerryUndem does provide useful data on changes in public attitudes — and some are striking.

One of their surveys was conducted in December last year, after the presidential election, while the other was completed last month, in the midst of the sexual harassment moment.

Since last December, the number saying sexism was a big problem in our society jumped 14 points, to 44 percent.

That change is not necessarily all attributable to the wave of harassment stories, but at least part of it surely is.

Just after the presidential election, 40 percent said that event made them think more about sexism. In November, a much larger 73 percent said the news stories about sexual harassment and assault had that impact.

The number saying men had more positions of power in our society jumped 22 points to 87 percent.

And there’s a hint of political consequence in the data.

At the end of 2016, 52 percent agreed that the country would be better off with more women in public office. Today that number stands at 69 percent — 17 points higher. Among Republican women, agreement rose 30 points.

And there is one additional consequence that takes us back to the question of politicians who engage in abusive behavior.

Americans want a thorough investigation of the many credible allegations against President Trump.

Forty-five percent believe the president “definitely … sexually harassed or assaulted women in his past.” Another 31 percent say he “probably” did so. That’s over three-quarters convinced that the president is likely guilty of assault or harassment.

Not surprisingly therefore, 76 percent in the PerryUndem survey want “an investigation into the accusations of sexual harassment and assault made about President Trump…”

And it’s not just one poll. Seventy percent in the Quinnipiac survey want Congress to investigate the sexual harassment charges against President Trump. (Some folks evidently want an entity other than Congress to carry out the investigation.)

Unfortunately, sexual harassment has proven to be a serious problem across the partisan spectrum.

By shielding the president from an inquiry into the allegations against him, Republicans risk turning this nonpartisan national moment into a weapon pointed at themselves.

Mellman is President of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. Senators, 12 Governors and dozens of House Members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic Leaders for over 20 years and as President of the American Association of Political Consultants.

Whether winning for you means getting more votes than your opponent, selling more product, changing public policy, raising more money or generating more activism, The Mellman Group transforms data into winning strategies.