Into Joe Biden and the Women’s Vote
Trymaine Lee: The 2020 election season was thrown a bit of a curveball when the spread of Coronavirus across the U.S. intensified in March. The Democratic field ad already been shrinking. And by early April, former Vice President Joe Biden was the only candidate left standing. Around the same time that Biden became the apparent nominee, an allegation surfaced against him that went beyond earlier reports that he made women uncomfortable. On March 25th, a woman named Tara Reade alleged in a podcast interview that Biden sexually assaulted her when she was a staffer on a Senate team in 1993.
Tara Reade: Everything shattered in that moment because I knew, like, we were along. It was over, right? He wasn't trying to do anything more. But I couldn't believe it was happening. It seemed surreal.
Lee: Biden denies the story.
Joe Biden: I promise you, it never happened.
Lee: According to a Quinnipiac poll out this week, Joe Biden is leading President Donald Trump 50 to 39%. The margin in favor of Biden is even greater when it comes to women voters. It's the first presidential election since the Me Too movement gained momentum. And the race now appears to be down to two men who have both been accused of sexual assault. In 2017 and 2018, many Democratic lawmakers joined the voting public in the call to believe women, when men in power were accused of wrongdoing.
Archival Recording: We believe women! We believe women!
Archival Recording: Well, the question is: Do we value women? And that's the fundamental question. Do we believe women?
Archival Recording: I believe the woman.
Lee: When it comes to the allegation against Joe Biden, polling suggests that voters are split over what to believe. And women are left with a choice to make this fall.
Collyne Partee: We have to weigh the benefits. And I can just having Donald Trump in office for another four years, I just don't even know what the world would even look like.
Serena Paulson: We claim, as a party, that we're better, so let's actually do better.
Lee: I'm Trymaine Lee, and this is Into America. Today, will this allegation of sexual assault hurt Biden's run for president among women voters? To answer that question, I turned to Ali Vitali, a political reporter at NBC News who has been covering the allegation against Joe Biden.
Ali Vitali: This is such a fraught moment. And it brings you to this point where you have to grapple as a voter with the values that you hold dear.
Lee: Ali and I talked to two of those voters, women from different backgrounds and different parts of the country, to find out whether this accusation will change the choice they make come November. And a warning: This piece includes a graphic description of what Tara Reade alleges happened.
Vitali: Tara Reade worked for Joe Biden from December 1992 until the summer of 1993. She says that, during that period of time, she experienced two things.
Lee: Tara Reade's story is complicated. So Ali began by just laying it all out for me.
Vitali: One, she came forward with in April of 2019, saying that then-Senator Joe Biden touched her in a way that made her feel uncomfortable. Then, almost a year later, Reade came forward and said Biden sexually assaulted her in the spring of 1993.
She says she was bringing him a gym bag, that she met up with him in an empty corridor somewhere in the Capitol complex, and that he penetrated her with his fingers under her skirt. And in the course of my reporting with my colleague, Mike Memoli, we reached out to dozens of former Biden staffers across his various offices at the time of Reade's alleged assault.
We got in touch with 14 of them. Four of them declined to comment to us. But most of them said they don't remember much about Reade specifically, and none of them said they heard any complaints about Biden's behavior during their time in his office.
Lee: Ali also sought to corroborate Reade's story with people who are close to her.
Vitali: Separately, I spoke with three friends of Reade's her were told varying degrees of detail about what happened while Reade worked in Biden's office. One of her friends says she was told by Reade at the time, in the spring of 1993, when the alleged assault happened.
Another woman is a former neighbor of Reade's in California. She spoke to me on the record. Her name's Lynda LaCasse. She didn't respond to my phone call, but she sent a text message telling me that Reade told her about the alleged assault two to three years after it happened.
And then finally, there's a third woman, who also asked that she remain anonymous, who told me that Reade told her some time in the mid-2000s that Biden had been inappropriate and touched her when she worked in his office, but that Reade didn't detail the alleged assault to her.
Now Reade also says she told her mother, who has since died, and her brother, who has told other outlets he remembers being told about this incident, but who we haven't been able to reach out speak to ourselves. And Trymaine, this story is just really complex.
Lee: Ali said that a few aspects of Reade's story have faced scrutiny.
Vitali: I mean Reade's story has evolved over time. It's also led to questions about her timing with this latest version of the story. And she was also met with criticism on social media after she came forward for the first time in April of 2019, in part, because she was vocally supporting other democratic president candidates, but also because of her past favorable writings about Russia and Vladimir Putin. Those posts have since been deleted. And Reade told me that she was working on a novel at the time, and that the writings don't represent her current feelings towards Russia or Putin, but that, broadly, that overall reaction online is why she didn't come forward with this fuller story at the time when she first came forward in April.
Lee: So this allegation certainly blindsides a lot of folks. But how did Joe Biden respond?
Vitali: It took Joe Biden a few weeks to even be asked about it after the initial reporting came out. He talked about it with Mika Brzezinski on MSNBC. And he unequivocally denied it.
Mika Brzezinski: Would you please go on the record with the American people? Did you sexually assault Tara Reade?
Biden: No. It is not true. I'm saying unequivocally it never, never happened.
Vitali: More recently, he was asked by Lawrence O'Donnell if he remembers Tara Reade. And he said he doesn't.
Lawrence O'donnell: Do you remember Tara Reade, who worked there for about around a year in 1992-'93?
Biden: Well, be honest with you, I don't. But look, let me get something clear. When a woman makes a claim that she has been harassed or abused, and this claim has changed as it's gone on, but harassed or abused, she should be taken seriously. She should come forward, share her story. She should be taken seriously.
Vitali: He did call for the release of some documents that might exist. Because Reade told me that she filed a complaint in 1993 with the Senate Personnel Office, not about the alleged assault, but about harassment that she said she was experiencing. She talked about this as, like, an intake form. And then she told another outlet that she chickened out going further after that.
But finding this complaint, if it even exists, gets confusing really quickly, because Biden said in a series of interviews that if this complaint existed, it would be at the national archives. And that's controlled by the Senate Secretary. The Senate Secretary has told Biden's team, Tara Reade's legal team, Tara Reade herself, that they can't release or locate this complaint.
So you're kind of at this stalemate in terms of trying to establish if there's any paper trail. And all of this coming against the backdrop that, if the paper trail even exists, it doesn't speak to the allegation of sexual assault.
Lee: So the Me Too movement was really fueled early on by the ascension of Donald Trump. I don't want to make any false equivalents here between the allegations made against Donald Trump and this accusation against Joe Biden. But I want to ask you, as a reporter who's been on the trail, you remember the backlash, you remember the response to the Access Hollywood tapes. Do you see any parallels between what you saw in 2016 and what you're seeing play out now?
Vitali: So I covered Trump in 2016. And I'll never forget when the Access Hollywood tape came out. The number of people who had been with Trump through scandal after scandal, because that's basically how that campaign went, they finally told me after Access Hollywood that this wasn't something they thought he could come back from.
And then I got out on the road and I remember being at a rally in New Hampshire. We were in this kind of big car parking lot. And I was talking to this voter who was holding her little girl, telling me that she herself had experienced bad behavior a the hands of men, and that this was almost what she expected, men talking about women in the way that Trump talked about women, and sometimes doing worse.
And we saw this cascade of credible allegations against Donald Trump, ranging from sexual harassment to sexual assault. And he denied them all, threatening, at one point, to even sue the women who were speaking out. And that, of course, never happened, I imagine, because he won.
And he won with the help of women. 88% of Republican women voted for Trump. 41% of women overall voted for Trump. And one of the lessons was, effectively, that maybe these allegations ultimately didn't matter. The thing that's not the same, though, is the way that Trump responded to the allegations against him--
Donald Trump: How about this crazy woman on the airplane? (LAUGHTER) Okay? I mean can anybody believe that one? (CHEERING) How 'bout this? We don't know each other.
Vitali: --and the way that Biden is responding to the allegation against him.
Biden: Look, from the very beginning, I've said believing women means taking the woman's claim seriously when she steps forward, and then vet it. Women have a right to be heard, and the pressure to rigorously investigate claims they make.
Vitali: I mean the response couldn't be more different. And that's so key here.
Lee: What are polls saying about how voters are seeing this allegation against Joe Biden?
Vitali: You know, polls are imperfect. And especially because reporters like you and me can't be out in the field. We're usually able to provide some kind of anecdote that supports the polls or knocks down what polls are finding. Unsurprisingly, we're not able to be out there doing that right now.
And so Monmouth was one first places to poll this. And they basically found a little more than a third of people say they think it's probably true. Another third of people say it's probably not true. Another third of people say they don't have an opinion on it.
And what was striking to me in that poll was that over 80% of people have heard about it. That leads to questions about, if they're hearing about it now, where does it go when you get closer to election day? Will it stay in their minds? Is this something that they're gonna be thinking about? Or are the other pressing issues of the pandemic and the economy going to outweigh it in their minds as they decide?
Lee: Ali, it really resonated with me when you talked about how hard it is, not being out on the campaign trail.
Lee: And I was really interested in hearing from black women on this issue especially. As we know, they are such a critical and important part of the Democratic Party, and played a central role in actually elevating Joe Biden. Let's not forget, his-- his campaign was kind of in-- in the dumps until South Carolina. And after that, the rest is history. So I had a chance to actually talk with a woman named Collyne Partee. And we had a really great conversation.
Partee: I live in-- Alpharetta, Georgia, which is a suburb north of Atlanta, Georgia. Been here for about 24 years.
Lee: Collyne is 55 years old. She's a graphic designer. And she owns her own firm.
Partee: And I am a lifelong Democrat.
Lee: She's been voting Democrat since she's been able to actually vote.
Partee: I can even remember when Jesse Jackson was running with his Rainbow Coalition, as well, and walking around with, like, you know, buttons and everything for Jesse Jackson.
Vitali: So talk to me about where Collyne was at then during the primary.
Lee: Collyne really wanted to see a woman be the nominee for the Democratic Party. So she was supporting Elizabeth Warren.
Partee: I felt that, you know, she really was speaking to, you know, everyone, not just the wealthy or not even just, you know, the disenfranchised, but everyone.
Lee: But then, as the field started to winnow down a little bit, she saw that maybe Elizabeth Warren really couldn't get that widespread support that she thought she would.
Vitali: Did she fall in line behind Biden then?
Lee: As the field got smaller, and it really came down to Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders, she said she simply didn't trust Bernie Sanders.
Partee: I had to go with Biden. I just didn't feel like Bernie had a chance at really beating Donald Trump.
Lee: And so I wonder, when you were thinking about, you know, the political gamesmanship here, were you putting more stock in the actual policies from these candidates, or just who has the best chance to beat Donald Trump?
Partee: Both. You know, I think both. Because we've got to have good policies that address all of the things that are going wrong right now. But I guess there's equal. You know, and the other half was who can actually beat Donald Trump? And I felt that I knew that, you know, Biden has support of African-American communities, people of color. I feel like more suburban women now just don't like Donald Trump. So I felt like they would vote for Biden over Trump.
Vitali: It feels like it all comes back to that idea of electability, that buzzword that we kept hearing about consistently.
Vitali: Collyne watched these allegations against Donald Trump play out in 2016. What was her reaction to those? And then what was her reaction to Tara Reade?
Lee: With Donald Trump, she said, "You know what? I see a history here."
Partee: I mean, you know, Trump has been accused of rape, you know, misogyny, walking through dressing rooms of women in his beauty pageants, you know, a lot of things. I mean it goes back for decades. And I mean it's very murky, Tara Reade allegations.
Because first it was, "Okay, he was a little touchy feely." Then it was, "Oh, I felt sexual harassment." And then it turned into, "Oh, it's a sexual assault." So, well, what was it? Why did it keep changing?
Lee: And she simply doesn't believe Tara Reade's accusation. For her, she says, "I'm sticking by Joe Biden."
Partee: What I felt that Democrats have done is almost kind of pigeonhole. We've kind of pushed ourselves into a corner. Because, you know, on one hand, we're saying, you know, the whole Me Too movement. Trust me, I'm a woman. I'm for the Me Too movement.
But I think we have set our moral high ground so high because we're trying to be totally opposite from Republicans, "Well, every woman should be believed, every woman should be believed." Well, every woman should be listened to. But it has to be investigated thoroughly.
Lee: She says, moving forward, you know, Democrats just have to rally. We talked about this idea of Democrats fall in love, Republicans fall in line. And she said Democrats have to hunker down, have to support each other, and have to get behind Joe Biden. If not, we'll see a replay of what happened in 2016. is there anything that you could imagine that would keep you from voting for Joe Biden in 2020?
Partee: No. There's nothing.
Lee: You're in.
Partee: I'm in. I'm all in. Everyone I know that is Democrat in my circle, I'm in a sorority, there's like 900 of us in my chapter, we're all own for Biden.
Lee: So do you understand maybe how Republican women voters were thinking at all after the Trump Access Hollywood tapes were released? Can you kind of imagine some of what might have been on in their minds?
Partee: Probably the same thing that's going on in my mind. I feel that I have different values, so that's why I'm going to vote for Joe Biden, or whoever the Democrat is. And I guess I would assume that that's how Republican women feel.
Lee: But I think with her, she looked at this also as a black woman, right? When she's arriving at the poll, she's not just voting red or blue. She's voting for criminal justice concerns. She's voting for trying to rectify this long history of disenfranchisement. And she's really concerned that, you know, what she sees coming out of the Republican Party is hostile.
Vitali: She's not thinking theoretically. It is all real-life application.
Lee: She doesn't have the privilege to think in the abstract.
Partee: I didn't think that my children would be facing issues that could probably be even worse than I had to face growing up. You know, I felt that, while, you know, they're not going to see all this inequality so much as I did. But it seems like it's gotten even worse now.
And I think that African-Americans have to be pragmatic. We have to weigh the benefits. And I can just, having Donald Trump in office for another four years, I just don't even know what this world would even look like. I don't even wanna really think about it right now. Because just look at what he's been able to tear down in less than four years. I just can't even imagine what another four years would be.
Vitali: That's fascinating.
Lee: Ali, just stick with us. Because I wanna hear about the Democrat voter you spoke to for this story. She has a very, very different view on this. We'll hear more after the break.
Lee: So trying to get the pulse of women voters, you talked to one woman. And her name is Serena Paulson. Tell me about Serena.
Vitali: Yeah, I met Serena at an event that Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley was hosting on behalf of Elizabeth Warren in Iowa. So where are you? Where am I finding you right now?
Paulson: I am still in Ames, Iowa. I am still job hunting. I'm still following national politics.
Vitali: Serena just graduated. She's got a degree in chemical engineering.
Paulson: So if you're listening to this, you need a chemical engineer, hit me up, Serena Paulson. (LAUGHTER)
Vitali: And she's fascinating to me. I've told her this. Because she's a progressive voter. But in 2016, she caucused for Ted Cruz. She ultimately then decided in November 2016 to vote for Hillary Clinton, in part, because of the Access Hollywood tape.
Lee: Progressive, Ted Cruz those are two things you rarely see together.
Vitali: Absolutely. And now she's someone who, you know, during this primary, I met her at an event for Elizabeth Warren. She likes Bernie Sanders, Julian Castro. Those were her candidates in 2020.
Paulson: I am disappointed, to say the least, over Joe Biden. I think he's made some good shifts. I think there's a lot of great people who are doing work to push him farther left. I am just still very disappointed that he is our nominee, for a lot of reasons.
Vitali: But throughout the primary, there was this old mantra of "vote blue no matter who," sort of reminding people that, even though this is a fractious primary with a lot of options, eventually, Democrats are gonna have to line up behind whoever the eventual Democratic nominee is. And in all the polling and in all the anecdotal evidence that I've collected, that's been true, because the top priority for every Democratic voter that I met was beating Donald Trump in 2020.
Lee: So it's vote blue no matter who. Joe Biden emerges top of the pack. And then the allegation from Tara Reade is thrown into the mix. How did she feel about that allegation?
Vitali: When I asked her about it, she said she wasn't surprised.
Paulson: I remember, as a kid, literally, like, when I was, like, 16 in high school, seeing pictures of Joe Biden inappropriately touching women. If you Google, "Joe Biden touching," and look at the image section, it's him awkwardly touching so many women. So it doesn't surprise me that he went farther than that.
Vitali: And I pressed her on that. Because sexual assault is a much more serious allegation.
Paulson: If he was already having these kinds of claims of women feeling uncomfortable, he shouldn't have run in the first place. I just think that sometimes we don't listen to women, and we don't listen to women saying, "I'm uncomfortable around this man." Maybe he shouldn't be president, then.
Lee: She believes Tara Reade's accusation?
Vitali: Yeah. And I even pressed her on: what if Tara Reade was wrong? I mean do you think there's any world in which he's telling the truth and this didn't happen?
Paulson: Maybe. But at this point, drop out.
Lee: What's the next step for her? What does she think should happen now that Biden is the presumptive nominee?
Vitali: She's hoping, and she's aware of the fact that this is not likely, but she's hoping that the DNC is gonna put forward another candidate to be the nominee. And, really, the whole tone of my conversation with Serena was anger and disappointment. Yes, she's angry with Biden. But she's also angry with the party writ large.
Paulson: Basically what's happening is a repeat of Kavanaugh. And as Democrats, we raise a whole lot of fuss. And he should do what Al Franken did in Minnesota and just outta there, because what is happening is just so hypocritical and so terrible to survivors everywhere, that we say that we're the party that stands with women, but we don't.
Vitali: So how do you square that circle between Democrats really saying, "Believe women," and now you hear Democrats, Elizabeth Warren included, right, that's who you and I met covering, threading the needle.
Vitali: Okay, these things, we should believe women until it's vetted, and then, "I believe Joe Biden" is where they're landing.
Paulson: Yeah, I am so angry at Warren right now. I'm so angry. She was probably, her and (UNINTEL) are the politicians I look up to most. And Kirsten Gillibrand, I haven't seen what she said about Joe Biden. But she was one of the first people to tell Al Franken from Minnesota to resign. And I just really respected her for it. I hope she's doing the same thing with Joe Biden. But--
Vitali: She's said that she believes Biden didn't do this.
Paulson: Ugh! See? That sucks. Because it's so many women that I've looked up to for so long. And for her to just-- it's politically convenient. It is politically convenient. (SIGH)
Lee: If Joe Biden sticks it out and he does not step down, and there's no other nominee, is sitting home actually an option, just not voting?
Vitali: No. She told me that she was feeling like she was deciding between the lesser of two evils, something that she says she's sick of having to do.
Paulson: That's not the way I wanna do my politics. And we deserve better. We claim, as a party, that we're better, so let's actually do better.
Vitali: The former vice president said something recently where he said, "If you're someone who believes Tara Reade, you shouldn't vote for me."
Biden: I think they should vote their heart. And if they believe Tara Reade, they probably shouldn't vote for me. I wouldn't vote for me if I believed Tara Reade.
Vitali: And clearly, Serena is one of the voters who the former vice president was talking to when he said that. Are you gonna vote for him?
Paulson: Unfortunately, yes. There's not another viable option. I understand how (UNINTEL) politics work. And I understand that if I vote for a third-party candidate, there's no way they're gonna win. And I'd rather have someone who's close, slightly more closely resembles what I want to happen than Donald Trump. So yeah.
Vitali: As a woman, how does it feel to have to make this kind of a decision and weigh these allegations ahead of an election as important as this one?
Paulson: It just really hurts.
Vitali: Serena is someone who was canvassing during the primary for other candidates. She's active in politics. She's sort of like the unicorn young voter for Democrats who want people who are gonna be energized and excited to get out the vote and help other people get out the vote, too. So she said she isn't going to canvas for Joe Biden.
Paulson: I'm not gonna knock a single door for Joe Biden, to be completely honest. I will be knocking doors for down ballot candidates, knocking doors for candidates that you're not passionate for doesn't work. It's not effective. Because the whole point is to have conversations and to change people's mind. So I'm going to choose not to and focus my efforts elsewhere in mobilizing voters in that way. Yeah.
Lee: So I really wanna reflect on the two women that we spoke to and what it might mean for November. But before we get to that, in terms of the actual allegation that's being made against Joe Biden, do we expect a formal investigation? What are the next steps?
Vitali: That's what Tara Reade's lawyer wants. He's called on the Democrat National Committee in statements to me and others asking them to support some kind of third party independent investigation into Biden. But that's a long shot, especially when you consider that the chair of the DNC, Tom Perez, has even compared this allegation and the drumbeat for establishing whatever paper trail might exist, Tom Perez called that "The new Hillary's e-mails." It sort of just reminds you that that scar of 2016 is still really raw.
Lee: Do you get the sense that this might become kind of a rallying point or rallying cry, the way Hillary's e-mails did for Republicans?
Vitali: For Republicans, maybe. I mean Donald Trump, I think, will use this at some point. You go on Twitter and already you see Trump's sons, other allies, they're pushing this story. And so I think a large part of it will be dependent on how Biden reacts. So far, we've seen a pretty consistent reaction from him.
And it's incumbent on media to try to keep the facts of this story, however complex it becomes, as clear as possible. Because there is so much muddying of the waters in this story already that, as we get closer to November, it's only gonna become more of that.
Lee: Ali, how important are women voters to Biden in November?
Vitali: Crucial. We really say this all the time. But I feel it almost can't be said enough. But women, and specifically, black women, are the lifeblood of the Democratic Party. They are going to be crucial for Joe Biden, turning them out and winning their support in 2020.
Lee: We've had this conversation where we pick through what's motivating women voters. And we have these two voters who arrive at the same conclusion, but they get there different ways. Ultimately, do you think that this allegation will hurt Joe Biden with women voters?
Vitali: I think it's a little bit too early to tell. Both of the women that we spoke to, and certainly it's two women and not indicative of the larger population of the United States, but I think that what we're seeing bear out in these conversations is that Democratic voters really are taking to heart this idea that the top priority is beating President Donald Trump in November. It's what they said throughout the entire primary.
And clearly, you're watching, in this conversation, two female voters grappling with an allegation. And for one of them, they believe the allegation. Serena believes the allegation that Tara is alleging against Joe Biden. And she's gonna vote for him anyway.
I think it tells a larger story that there might be voters out there who do believe Tara Reade, and they might focus on down ballot races, like Serena is. But they're gonna be voting in November, and they're gonna be voting for Joe Biden.
Lee: Ali, thank you so much for helping us kind of sort through this messiness. Really appreciate it.
Vitali: Absolutely, Trymaine.
Lee: Ali Vitali is a political reporter for NBC News. Into America is produced by Isabel Angel, Allison Bailey, Aaron Dalton, Max Jacobs, Barbara Raab, Claire Tighe, Aisha Turner and Preeti Varathan. Original music by Hannis Brown. Our executive producer is Ellen Frankman. Steve Lickteig is executive producer of audio.
I'm Trymaine Lee. We'll catch you next week on Monday. That's right, we've got a very special, very fun Memorial Day episode planned for you. So sit tight, listen while you're at home with your family barbecuing. Whatever you're doing, stay safe. And we'll catch you on Thursday, too.