Biden campaign, women’s groups are working to blunt sexist attacks on his vice presidential pick

Senator Kamala Harris gives a thumbs down as she speaks during the 2020 Democratic U.S. presidential debate in Houston, Texas, U.S., September 12, 2019. REUTERS/Mike Blake

Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, Joe Biden’s campaign manager, warned on a recent all-staff call that when his vice presidential pick is announced, sexism will motivate the ugliest attacks against her – no matter who she is.

She delivered this directive: Everyone on the campaign will be enlisted to defend her.

The all-hands-on-deck approach within the Biden campaign, described by someone on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, is being separately bolstered by some of the country’s leading women’s groups, including NARAL Pro-Choice America, Emily’s List, She the People and UltraViolet, who have been strategizing for months about how to best defend Biden’s vice presidential pick from sexist and racist insults .

Even before the nominee is named, some being considered by Biden are beginning to face the same sorts of attacks, playing on negative stereotypes, that the campaign and independent groups have vowed to confront.

One Facebook image aimed at former Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice plays on her last name and puts her photo on an altered box of Uncle Ben’s Rice – labeled “Uncle Bama’s Dirty Rice.” The tagline reads: “Subversively Delicious, Every Time!”

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., is being maligned online for a past relationship, a theme that was also floated on right-wing sites in her unsuccessful presidential campaign. Memes of Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., circulating on Facebook suggest she’s a “liar,” a radical and a closeted communist, offering no evidence other than past travel to Cuba and a warm quote about former leader Fidel Castro.

The posture by Biden’s campaign and women’s groups is meant to be far more aggressive than the way gender attacks were dealt with in 2016, when Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential nominee of a major political party, often tried to downplay or ignore such gibes and was not taken seriously on occasions when her team did point to sexism. It’s also a reflection of the changed environment since then, as women expanded their political power with nationwide marches and the #MeToo movement ushered in fights against sexism in business, the media and politics.

Shaunna Thomas, the co-founder and executive director of UltraViolet, the group spearheading the effort by nearly a dozen women’s organizations, predicted that attacks would come in many forms.

“They will be public. They will be behind the scenes. Some will be blatant. Others will be subtle. So pushing back – getting the back of this woman – is going to require a multifaceted effort,” she said.

Their work includes engaging a research firm to identify images already being circulated online, and preparing to call on platforms like Reddit or Facebook to remove images as they emerge from the dark corners of the Internet.

They’re also lining up surrogates ready to call out gendered or racist attacks – if the nominee is a woman of color – and have gathered research on how male vice presidential candidates have been described, as a means of comparison.

Trump and his allies have hammered their unsubstantiated claims that Biden has mentally lost a step and will be under the sway of a powerful vice president, an argument designed to put an even brighter spotlight on the woman who will fill that role. Republicans have suggested privately that they will aim at the vice presidential nominee to see if criticisms against her succeed in a way they haven’t yet with Biden.

“Everything they’ve thrown at Joe Biden has failed to stick,” said Sen. Christopher Coons, D-Del., a close ally and Biden confidant. “I guess Trump should gear up for a new target. He needs one.”

Not every campaign attack is gendered, the campaign and the women’s groups acknowledge; some rest on past records or statements, akin to those that would be leveled against a male candidate. Trump campaign officials said their criticisms would be based on policy differences.

Republican operatives at the campaign and the Republican National Committee have compiled research on all the possible picks. When an announcement is made, Republicans plan to immediately push out videos to try to define the vice presidential nominee, according to a person familiar with the plans.

“Joe Biden’s vice presidential nominee will be his political ‘living will’ and each person on his shortlist has an irreconcilable record of leaving women and minorities behind,” said Ali Pardo, deputy communications director for the Trump campaign. “Unlike Democrats who are obsessed with identity politics and empty promises, President Trump is laser-focused on strengthening all Americans through policies like school choice, criminal justice reform, and Opportunity Zones that have lifted millions out of poverty.”

But Trump and his followers have been fierce in their past attacks against women, particularly women of color.

He derided his former senior White House aide, Omarosa Manigault Newman, who had been his highest-ranking Black staffer, as “that dog.” He told a group of four minority congresswomen that they should “go back” to the countries they came from, even though only one of the four is foreign born. He has insulted Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., as “low-IQ.” And he jabbed the mother in a Gold Star family, suggesting that Ghazala Khan wasn’t allowed to speak at the 2016 Democratic Convention.

The various potential running mates have also had their own experiences with Trump. He has long derided Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., as “Pocahontas,” a slur that refers to her claims that she had Native American ancestors. Trump went after Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who also is among those Biden is considering, referring to her as “the woman in Michigan” before mocking her intelligence – a red flag to women’s groups – and tweeting her name as “Gretchen ‘Half’ Whitmer.”

Kelsey Suter, a disinformation researcher with Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, a Democratic firm, is helping women’s groups identify sexist memes that begin in private or semiprivate social media groups, so they can point to the origins if they become mainstream.

When Biden makes his announcement, Suter said, she expects “a flood of content playing on common sexist tropes: portraying her as crazy, untrustworthy, unqualified, dumb, or sexual – claiming she is angry, or extreme, or perhaps that she ‘slept her way to the top.’ ”

Suter said if past patterns hold, social media users will be bombarded with content saying the nominee is a liar or will say anything to get ahead. Images will be manipulated, showing her with crazy-looking eyes or in sexualized poses, said Suter, who added she has already seen such content in difficult-to-access corners of the Internet.

Viewers will “see these images across social media platforms, over and over, until they begin to look normal,” Suter said. “These posts may look like regular media coverage or may be rooted in valid criticisms – but they will be artificially shared and amplified in order to undermine voters’ support and heighten political tensions.”

Biden pledged months ago to name a woman as his running mate, reaching for history – besides Clinton, only two women have been on a major party ticket – and reflecting the importance of women to the Democratic Party’s voting coalition.

He initially promised to make his decision by Aug. 1, then pushed it back. While he has been expected to make his announcement a few days before the Aug. 17 start of the Democratic convention, two people familiar with the process said that one-on-one interviews had not been scheduled with some of the top contenders as of midweek, although Biden met with Whitmer last weekend. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The Biden campaign is working to define the vice presidential pick on its own terms. It has asked potential nominees to gather past footage of themselves so that they will be well-positioned to produce a slick introductory video of the pick, according to two people familiar with the request. Beyond that, the campaign has been trying to anticipate how each of the top contenders will fare and developing responses, according to a person familiar with the process who was not authorized to discuss it publicly.

The women’s groups have identified three broad negative narratives that they frequently see used against female candidates that distinguish those motivated by sexism: women as too emotional or too angry; women as liars or manipulators; and women as lacking qualifications or not smart enough for the job.

“The most sophisticated attacks are ones that play on society’s biases,” said Thomas, of UltraViolet. The groups are also focusing on bias from influencers, including the media, and issued a guide on Friday advising how to avoid amplifying sexism and racism in news coverage.

What can make attacks difficult to identify as outright sexism often depends on the way the attack is leveled rather than the substance of it, said Ilyse Hogue, the president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Often it’s the wrapper not the specific,” she said.

During the 2016 presidential campaign, Trump used chants of “Lock Her Up” to drive a message that Clinton was not trustworthy. Trump also focused on Clinton’s physical appearance and her health, playing on past stereotypes that women are weak.

“The issue with her health was particularly troublesome because the Trump campaign was able to take something that was a strength – the woman is indefatigable – and by homing in on a gender stereotype and relentlessly harping on it, they managed to call her strength into question,” said Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s 2016 communications director.

But the most insidious attacks involved pushing a vague notion that there was just something intangible – and hard for voters to put into words – that bothered them about Clinton, Palmieri said.

The same feelings tend to arise when any woman is elevated – and comes from both political parties, researchers say. As she climbed in the polls during the Democratic primaries, Warren and her campaign heard feedback from voters that they approved of her agenda but felt voting for her would be too risky. As Harris rose to become a vice presidential front-runner, a leading Biden supporter offered that she “can rub people the wrong way.”

Female power remains unusual in society, Palmieri said. “We don’t recognize it and therefore we think there’s something nefarious about it,” said the author of “She Proclaims: Our Declaration of Independence from a Man’s World,” a book on empowering women. “It’s how human nature works.”

But the 2016 campaign also was replete with blatant sexism. At Trump rallies, vendors sold buttons emblazoned with slogans like: “KFC Hillary Special: 2 Fat Thighs, 2 Small Breasts and one Left Wing” and buttons that read: “Life’s A Bitch – Don’t Vote For One.” One bumper sticker included the faces of Clinton and Trump, and read: “Trump that bitch.”

Clinton’s presidential run – particularly against a candidate who was so overt in his attacks – made many women’s groups realize there was a deeper suspicion of women seeking power than they’d realized.

“We all wanted to believe in 2016 that a woman could run on her own qualifications, and we found out that’s not true. And it’s been reaffirmed multiple times,” said Hogue, the NARAL president. “We will take nothing for granted this time around.”

Hogue said she has “deputized” some of the organization’s 2.5 million members as spokespeople who will call out sexism on their social networks when they see it. “What we know is when it comes to voters, the best surrogates are the people in their own communities who they respect,” Hogue said.



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