What difference did sexual misconduct allegations against Trump, Bill Clinton make in election?

Last Updated Dec 1, 2017 2:51 PM EST

Weeks after allegations of sexual harassment and assault rocked the entertainment industry, the issue is now being confronted in the political arena. Digging into the CBS News polling archives, we find that while the public may be bothered by allegations of sexual harassment or misconduct against a politician, it's sometimes overlooked when they go to the voting booth.  

When voters went to the polls last November, seven in 10 said they were bothered – a lot or some - by Donald Trump's treatment of women. Now, while most of those voters didn't vote for him, 28 percent did, including a quarter of women and a third of men who found his treatment of women bothersome.

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Going back further, when Bill Clinton ran for reelection in 1996, voters prioritized a candidate's position on issues over his character and values. Those who picked issue positions voted overwhelmingly for Clinton and those who valued character backed his Republican opponent, Bob Dole. But there were some voters (18 percent) who chose character and voted for Clinton.

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Most of the focus on the allegations against Bill Clinton occurred in his second term. At the time, he received positive job approval ratings from the American public, averaging roughly 60 percent approval in his second term.  Polling in 1998 found that four in 10 of those who believed he was guilty of sexually harassing Paula Jones approved of the job he was doing as president.

These data on Donald Trump and Bill Clinton suggest that some voters were perhaps able to overlook a candidate's personal behavior or did not believe certain allegations in large part because the candidate's positions and political party aligned with their own.

Partisanship: A dominating factor

What's behind why some voters may back a politician amid allegations of sexual misconduct? Or not believe an accuser? It's largely partisanship.

Last year, three in four Republicans who were bothered a lot or some by Trump's treatment of women cast a ballot for him. An overwhelming number of Democrats who were bothered did not.

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Partisanship had a greater impact than gender. Taking a deeper dive, 89 percent of women Democrats were bothered a lot or some by Trump's treatment of women, compared to just 45 percent of women Republicans. Among men, the pattern was similar, although Republican men (52 percent) were more likely than Republican women (45 percent) to be bothered.

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Political party affiliation has played a big role in whether or not allegations of sexual misconduct against Donald Trump and Bill Clinton are believed. During the 2016 presidential campaign, a number of women came forward alleging that Mr. Trump had made unwanted sexual advances toward them. CBS News polling at the time found that opinions on the truthfulness of these allegations were highly influenced by partisanship.  Three-quarters of Republicans did not believe the allegations to be true, while more than eight in 10 Democrats thought they were.

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Nearly 20 years earlier, the public split along party lines when these kinds of allegations were made against a Democrat, Bill Clinton. Paula Jones alleged that Clinton sexually harassed her while he was Arkansas governor and Kathleen Willey accused Clinton of unwanted advances while in the White House. In both cases, it was Republicans who were more likely than Democrats to believe the women's charges. Women, who are more likely to identify as Democrats, were less likely than men to think Clinton was guilty of Jones' accusations.

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 Furthermore, Democrats (46 percent) were four times as likely as Republicans (11 percent) to think Jones was lying about her accusations. They were more willing to believe Clinton. While many Democrats didn't think President Clinton was telling the entire truth, only 15 percent thought he was lying. Views were similar when asked about the accusations made by Willey.

Another poll done by the Wall Street Journal asked about Juanita Broaddrick's accusations that Bill Clinton had raped her in 1978. Here too, Republicans were more inclined to believe those accusations than Democrats were.

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In January 1998, soon after news broke that President Clinton may have had a sexual relationship with a White House intern, Monica Lewinsky, six in 10 Republicans thought the claims were true, while opinions among Democrats were more mixed, however, just 32 percent thought they were true.

Have things changed today?

Allegations of sexual misconduct have arisen in politics more recently. In Alabama's Senate race, accusations have been made against Republican candidate Roy Moore that occurred years ago. In one case, involving a 14-year old girl. A number of Senate Republicans have said Moore should step aside. Moore has lost ground to his Democratic opponent since the accusations were made public but a recent poll of Alabama likely voters found just 13 percent of Republicans believe the allegations against Moore are true, compared to 64 percent of Democrats who think they are. 

As for Democratic politicians, Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota was recently accused of sexual misconduct by two women, and Michigan Rep. John Conyers has reportedly settled a sexual harassment claim.

Some of their Democratic colleagues have called for an ethics investigation, but so far, only one lawmaker has called for either man to resign.