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Has a backlash against political correctness made sexual misbehaviour more acceptable?

Last week’s Essential poll, conducted March 24-28 from a sample of 1,100, showed a striking difference by gender over approval of Scott Morrison. With men, Morrison’s approval since February was steady at 65%, and his disapproval up just two points to 30%, for a net approval of +35.

With women, Morrison’s approval had slumped 16 points from February, to 49%, with ten points of that drop coming between the mid-March and late March polls. Morrison’s disapproval with women had increased 12 points since February to 40%, and his net approval was +9, down 28 points since February.

Read more: Morrison's ratings take a hit in Newspoll as Coalition notionally loses a seat in redistribution

Katharine Murphy wrote in The Guardian on April 3 that Morrison’s approval was actually up 11 points with both young men (18-34) and rural/regional men. These findings would be based on small subsamples, so are not reliable.

A striking pattern is emerging: women are turning off Morrison while men are staying loyal. With so many terrible stories about the treatment of women coming out of Parliament House in recent weeks, why should this be so?

Newspoll has released aggregate data for its four federal polls taken between February and March. As noted by The Poll Bludger, these data fail to follow the script, with Labor ahead by 51-49 with both men and women, a four-point gain for Labor with men since the October to December Newspoll aggregate, and no change with women. There is little difference in Morrison’s ratings with men or women.

The Newspoll aggregate data used four polls from early February to late March, while Essential’s findings are based on just the late March poll. In my previous article, I implied Newspoll’s mid-March poll may have been affected by the WA election; it’s possible that election had a bigger swing to Labor among men than women.

Scott Morrison’s approval ratings have held steady among men, but slipped with women in recent weeks. AAP/Mick Tsikas

International polling on political correctness and sex

In a mid-March article, CNN analyst Harry Enten cited an American National Election Studies’ survey before the 2020 US elections. This was an academic survey of over 8,000 respondents that asked a large number of questions.

In one question, respondents were asked to choose between whether they thought people needed to change the way they talk to fit with the times, or whether that movement — often disparagingly referred to as “political correctness” — had gone too far and people were too easily offended.

By 53-46, respondents said people were too easily offended. In this same poll, Joe Biden led Donald Trump by a 53-42 margin, so the seven-point margin in favour of too much political correctness (PC) shows it is a strong issue for Republicans. As Biden actually won the national popular vote by 4.5%, not 11%, it is likely opposition to PC is stronger than this poll implies.

Furthermore, respondents under 30 were split at 50-50 on this PC question, even though they supported Biden by 30 points over Trump. So the fight over PC is something that could push more young people into supporting conservatives.

I analysed the ANES data on the degree of agreement on the statement “many women interpret innocent remarks or acts as being sexist”. The response options were strongly agree, somewhat agree, neither agree nor disagree, somewhat disagree and strongly disagree.

For the overall sample, 32% agreed and 31% disagreed that innocent remarks were interpreted as sexist. For men, it was 33% agree and 26% disagree, though for men under 35 it was 35% disagree and 28% agree. An issue is whether the neutral option is hiding some respondents who agree with the statement, but ironically choose a more PC response.

Polling for The Economist taken in 2018 shows young men (18-29) in four countries (Britain, France, Germany and the US) were less likely to say sexually inappropriate behaviour was sexual harassment than they were in 2017. This polling was taken a year into the #MeToo movement.

A 2018 poll taken in four countries showed young men were less likely to say sexually inappropriate behaviour was sexual harassment than they were the previous year. Shutterstock

US elections involving sex-compromised candidates

In Australia, candidates who do something that embarrasses their party will usually be disendorsed by their party before the election. It is unlikely a major party candidate accused of very sexist remarks would be allowed to face the voters as an endorsed candidate. However, sometimes scandals occur too late to remove candidates from the ballot paper.

In the US, major party candidates are selected by primaries, with the primary election held months before the general election. Once a candidate wins a primary, they cannot be forced to step aside by their party. So there are far more cases of sexually compromised major party candidates in the US contesting general elections.

In presidential election years, Congressional elections are held concurrently with the presidential election, in early November. With one extreme exception, Missouri’s 2012 Senate election is the last time a sexually compromised candidate performed far worse than the presidential ticket.

Republican Todd Akin made remarks in August 2012 implying women would not become pregnant from a “legitimate rape”. Incumbent Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill crushed him by nearly 16 points, even though Republican Mitt Romney won Missouri by over nine points in the presidential election.

Since that election, the only sexually compromised candidate who has underperformed is Republican Roy Moore at the December 2017 Alabama Senate byelection. Moore was accused of sexual assaults of girls who were below the legal age (the youngest alleged victim was 14).

Moore lost to Democrat Doug Jones by two points in a state Trump won by 28 points in 2016 and 25 in 2020. In 2020, Alabama reverted to type when Republican Tommy Tuberville crushed Jones by 20 points. As well as the accusations of child sex assault, Moore was hurt by Trump being near the worst popularity nationally of his term.

Owing to the alleged child sex assaults, Moore is an extreme case. As I have previously written, the Access Hollywood tape featured Trump himself making crude sexual comments, and that tape was released a month before the 2016 election. But it had little impact in the polls, and Trump won the 2016 election in the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by 2.1%.

Despite the outrage of the Access Hollywood tapes during the 2016 US presidential campaign, Trump’s ratings suffered relatively little. AAP/AP/zz/Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx

In October 2018, Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed as a Supreme Court justice by a 50-48 Senate vote, despite allegations of sexual misconduct and assault. All except one Republican voted for him, and all bar one Democrat voted against.

Although Democrats won the House easily at the November 2018 midterms, Republicans extended their margin in the Senate from 51-49 to 53-47, mostly because the last time those senators had been up was in 2012, a very good election for Democrats. Only one Republican who voted to confirm was defeated in 2018 — Nevada’s Dean Heller — while four Democrats who voted against were defeated, including McCaskill.

The 2020 Senate elections were largely dictated by the presidential candidate’s support in a given state. The one significant difference from presidential results was Republican Susan Collins in Maine, who won by about nine points even as Trump lost Maine by the same margin. Collins had supported Kavanaugh’s confirmation.

In early October 2020, North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham was revealed to have engaged in sexting with a woman who was not his wife. This has been blamed for Cunningham’s narrow defeat, but he lost by 1.8% while Biden lost North Carolina by 1.3% — hardly a big difference.

To sum up, since the Missouri Senate election in 2012, the only candidate accused of sexual misbehaviour who has performed very badly considering the presidential results in his state is Moore in Alabama, and he was accused of child sex offences. Trump won despite the Access Hollywood tape and Senate Republicans who voted for Kavanaugh did not suffer electorally.

Read more: Morrison still enjoys strong ratings in separate polls, indicating Labor's gains may be short-lived

In this article, I have explored three categories: recent Australian polling showing a large difference in Morrison’s ratings among men and women; international polling showing that conservatives can benefit from an anti-PC sentiment and young men becoming less likely to view sexual misbehaviour as harassment; and US elections that suggest there is little penalty for sexual misbehaviour anymore.

Having looked at all the data, I believe there is a backlash against political correctness that is making sexual misbehaviour more acceptable.

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