What the 2016 election proves about the sexual assault allegations against Trump (and what it doesn't)
Posted December 7, 2017 3:13 p.m. EST
(CNN) — On Thursday afternoon, White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was asked about Al Franken's description of President Donald Trump as "a man who has bragged on tape about his history of sexual assault."
Here's how she responded:
"The President addressed the comments back during the campaign. We feel strongly that the people of the country also addressed that when they elected Donald Trump president. I don't have anything to add."
There are things that are right in that statement by Sanders. And things that are totally and completely wrong.
Sanders is right that Trump addressed the allegations during the course of the campaign.
"As you have seen, I am a victim of one of the great political smear campaigns in the history of our country," Trump said at a North Carolina rally in mid-October 2016. "They are coming after me to try and destroy what is considered by even them the greatest movement in the history of our country."
He repeated similar denials throughout the final days of the campaign. And Sanders herself, from the White House podium, has said that Trump's official position is that the women who accused him of sexually inappropriate conduct are simply lying.
You can disagree with Trump's argument. Or think he isn't telling the truth. But you can't deny that he has addressed the allegations -- albeit in his own unique way.
It's the next part of Sanders' assertion where she gets into far dicier territory on the facts.
"We feel strongly that the people of the country also addressed that when they elected Donald Trump president," Sanders said.
Obviously, you can't fact-check a feeling. But Sanders' argument here is worth checking. And that argument goes like this: The "Access Hollywood" tape and the allegations made by more than a dozen women that Trump had harassed them were everywhere in the run-up to the election, and Trump still won. Which means that people didn't care. And that the explanations that Trump has already offered about these allegations are, therefore, totally sufficient.
Sort of. But not really.
Here's what we know from the 2016 exit poll about how people factored the "Access Hollywood" tape and the allegations against Trump into their votes. Asked "does Donald Trump's treatment of women bother you?" 70% of the 2016 electorate said "yes" while 29% said "no." Among the "yes" group, Hillary Clinton won 65% to 29%. Among the "no" group, Trump won 87% to 10%.
What's interesting is that while Trump lost among those who were very bothered by his treatment of women, he actually won among people who were bothered -- but not as much.
People who said Trump's behavior bothered them "a lot" (50% of the electorate) went for Clinton by 72 percentage points. By contrast, those who said Trump's treatment of women bothered them "some" (20%) went for Trump by 52 points. Ditto those who said Trump's conduct bothered them "not much" who went for Trump by 80 points.
(Worth noting here: Clinton won the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes over Trump.)
What those numbers suggest is that for a chunk of voters, Trump's behavior toward women was determinative in their vote. And they, by and large, voted for Clinton. But for another major chunk of voters who didn't like Trump's conduct, it was simply not enough of a disincentive for them to not vote for him. Other things mattered more -- namely that Trump successfully cast himself as a change agent in an election in which people badly wanted change.
Sanders then is not totally right in her contention that the election made clear that voters didn't care about the issue of Trump's conduct around women. Lots and lots cared deeply -- and they voted against Trump in droves. And/but: Lots cared, but not enough to vote against Trump.
One other thing is important to say here: There is nothing -- not. one. thing. -- in the exit poll data or the vote itself that suggests that voters accepted Trump's version of events regarding the allegations made against him by these women. They may not have voted on that issue, but to claim the 2016 election was an exoneration of Trump in the face of all of these accusations is to take about five logic leaps too many.
Trump won. Even with these outstanding allegations against him. Both of those things are true. But to attempt to use the first fact to dismiss the second one is a massive error.