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Two Very Different Ways for Campaigns to Respond to Sexual Assault Allegations

There’s a reason the allegations against Arnold Schwarzenegger when he was running for governor of California didn’t hurt his candidacy nearly as much as what we’re seeing with Donald Trump right now.

By Seth Masket


California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger before he was sworn in for second term on January 5, 2007. (Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Last winter, I noted some parallels between Donald Trump’s presidential campaign and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 2003 run for governor. We now have a new similarity—claims that the candidates committed versions of sexual assault.

Shortly before the October 2003 recall election in California, several women came forward with accusations that Schwarzenegger had, over the period of several decades, groped them, grabbed their breasts, and otherwise sexually humiliated them. The Los Angeles Timesbroke the story just days before the election, catching the campaign off guard.

There’s little evidence that this story hurt Schwarzenegger’s support among voters. There were few polls conducted in between the release of the Times’ story and the election, but it appears as though his support remained steady, and he actually outperformed his polling averages on Election Day.

Why might Schwarzenegger have been resilient to these stories, while somewhat similar allegations appear to be hurting Trump’s chances at the polls this fall?

Well, for one thing, the campaigns and candidates have responded very differently. Both Schwarzenegger’s and Trump’s campaigns, of course, sought initially to deny the allegations and to suggest that they were just politically motivated, demonstrating the media’s bias against their candidates.

But a day after the Times released its story, Schwarzenegger took a different tact. He admitted that at least some of the allegations were true, and offered a non-specific apology for them:

It is true that I was on rowdy movie sets and I have done things that were not right which I thought then was playful. But now I recognize that I offended people. Those people that I have offended, I want to say to them I am deeply sorry about that and I apologize because that’s not what I’m trying to do. A lot of the stuff in the story is not true … but I have to say that where there’s smoke there’s fire.

This is notably different from Trump’s approach, in which he has repeatedly and fervently denied the growing number of stories and sought to disparage his accusers. He has even suggested that he couldn’t have assaulted some of them because they weren’t attractive enough. He has claimed that the stories are part of a broad conspiracy against his campaign. He has issued nothing like an apology. He has bizarrely claimed that no one respects women more than he does.

Of course, there are other very important differences between the two campaigns and scandals. Probably most importantly, the allegations against Trump surfaced shortly after the release of an “Access Hollywood” video in which Trump was caught, on tape, openly bragging about grabbing women’s genitalia. It is much harder to believe “I never assault women” when there’s a tape of you saying “Here’s how I like to assault women.”

Also important is the passage of time. Public understanding of sexual assault has changed substantially in the 13 years since Schwarzenegger’s first campaign, and voters and journalists are far less likely to describe these actions as “rowdy” or “playful” today. What was dismissed not to0 long ago as aggressive flirtation is now more likely and accurately to be perceived as a crime.

Finally, and relatedly, Republican Party elites have responded to the two events very differently. Republican leaders rallied early and strongly for Schwarzenegger in 2003 and never abandoned him, even when the groping allegations surfaced. By contrast, Trump’s assault stories appear to be the one thing that actually moved some Republican leaders, including Senator John McCain, to finally unendorse Trump and call for him to step down as the presidential nominee. That is the sort of thing that undermines one’s base of voter support.

Now, I should note that it’s entirely possible that these stories aren’t actually hurting Trump all that much. His numbers have been falling since his first debate with Hillary Clinton, which was before the release of the Access Hollywood tape, and it’s hard to know if polls would look much different today if those stories had never surfaced at all.

But to the extent the stories have hurt Trump, it’s at least partially due to his own reaction to them. Schwarzenegger’s own personal behavior certainly warranted condemnation, but he at least knew how to minimize the damage to his campaign. As with so many things this year, Trump has taken a bad moment for his campaign and made it far, far worse.