Female candidates who pledge to fight sexual harassment can win increased support from their base, while candidates who question the relevance of the #MeToo movement raise doubts in voters’ minds about their own qualifications, according to a national survey released by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation on Wednesday.
The poll aimed to test whether the wave of women candidates running for office this fall should directly address the issue of widespread sexual misconduct that exploded into public consciousness seven months ago. It found that Democratic and Republican voters alike respond positively to a candidate who expressly makes sexual harassment an issue in her campaign.
“The issue of sexual harassment has dramatically shifted our cultural dialogue,” founder Barbara Lee said in a statement. “This issue is important to voters and has the potential to be a deciding factor in a close race.”
The national survey, conducted by phone in February, took the temperature of the electorate by asking respondents to react to campaign messages put out by fictional candidates and studying various matchups between them. A single sentence was altered to include or omit a pledge to fight sexual harassment.
In hypothetical matchups where neither candidate mentioned sexual harassment, the Democratic woman beat a Republican man, and the Republican woman lost to a Democratic man. In each case, there was a 10-point gap.
While the Democratic candidate’s showing didn’t change much when she talked about sexual harassment — she still won 46 percent to 38 percent, down from 46-39 percent — her favorability rating shot up to 55 percent and her unfavorable rating tumbled to 27 percent (compared to a favorable-unfavorable rating of 48-30 percent in the control question).
The Republican woman who pledged to fight sexual harassment beat a Democratic male opponent 42 percent to 41 percent.
The survey also found that voters responded more positively to a candidate who pledged to fight sexual harassment generally than one who said she’ll fight it “having experienced it herself earlier in her career.”
The survey also tested for backlash to the #MeToo movement by asking voters to respond to statements from fictitious congressional candidates who were dismissive or critical of sexual harassment claims or the broad social movement against sexual misconduct. In each case, a majority of voters reported that the hypothetical candidate’s skepticism raised doubts about the candidate himself.
When a candidate said that focusing on harassment would be a waste of time because real change can come only from female-friendly workplace policies, 60 percent of respondents then expressed doubts about the candidate.
Fifty-five percent of respondents expressed doubt about another hypothetical candidate who said the #MeToo movement has snowballed into “criminalizing bad dates,” and making men “afraid to interact with women at all for fear of their innocent actions being labeled as harassment or worse.”
Fifty-nine percent of respondents expressed reservations about a candidate who said the #MeToo movement is out of control, and that society is now “calling rape when someone has engaged in consensual sex but regretted it later.”
And the broadest rejection was reserved for the candidate who prioritized other urgent needs — such as the opioid crisis and the risk of war with North Korea — over sexual harassment, saying, “Once we take care of these big issues, then we can deal with things like sexual harassment.” Sixty-four percent of respondents said such a statement would create doubts about the candidate who said it.
“In some ways, that does speak to the power of the movement,” said Dianne Bystrom, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University, after reviewing a memo on the poll. “The survey respondents really didn’t want to hear about criticisms of the #MeToo movement. Right now, I think it’s a very strong narrative for women.”
The poll found that some voters are so motivated by the #MeToo movement that they are likely to vote for whichever candidate pledges to fight sexual harassment.
While both Democratic and Republican voters responded favorably to the messaging, the poll found that some voters — swing independent women, Latina voters, and unmarried women — are so motivated by the movement that they are likely to vote for whichever candidate pledges to fight sexual harassment.
The poll, conducted by Lake Research Partners and Bellwether Research, reached a total of 1,000 likely 2018 voters, and has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.1 percent.
The Barbara Lee Family Foundation works for women’s equality in politics through research and partnerships. In April, the foundation released another poll that found 81 percent of voters see sexual harassment in the workplace as a serious problem. Fifty-two percent of voters said they would never vote for a person accused of sexual harassment.
That poll found that the issue had even more of an impact on certain subsets of voters — including millennial women, who often do not vote in midterm elections — and suggested that it could spur turnout.
“We can mobilize voters on it,” pollster Celinda Lake said at the time.Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert