The Second Presidential Debate

Well before the 2016 debates had begun — indeed, before it was clear who the nominees would be — the National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) worked with legislators, policymakers, academics, reporters, and the interested public to develop a means of measuring civility in this year’s debates. What would constitute civil or uncivil behavior? And, just as importantly, how would we set standards that would enable us to compare the level of civility in 2016’s debates to previous years?

NICD and its partners created the debate standards in anticipation of normal levels of civil and uncivil behavior that we have seen in previous debates. These standards were intended to be a tool for the candidates, moderators and the public so that we can move back toward civility in an already-troublesome election. Since issuing those standards, the campaign has devolved further and further.

However, after using these standards to measure the first two debates (see the press release for the first Presidential Debate, and the press release for the Vice Presidential Debate), it is clearer than ever that this is not a typical election. While we expected normal violations of civil behavior in these debates, it turned out to be far worse. What the nation witnessed on Sunday were egregious violations of civil behavior that fall far outside the traditional rules of engagement in public campaigns.

As part of our larger research project on civility in debates, we asked university students to identify and code insults in the 2008 and 2012 debates and compare them to those in the 2016 debates. Not only did they find far fewer insults during 2008 and 2012 than in 2016, but those they identified in this year’s campaign were quite different. In 2008 and 2012, candidates alleged that their opponents: “made a mistake,” “told a whopper,” “does one thing and says another,” or “doesn’t understand (or doesn’t want to understand)” a particular aspect of federal policy, but they didn’t directly accuse their opponent of being a liar or directly question their intelligence or character. Clearly, what might have struck us in past presidential debates as reasonable civility norms simply do not cover the behavior we are witnessing this year.

Examples of uncivil behavior that our standards did not anticipate based on past norms include: intimidation by invading the other candidate’s physical space; calling each other names; and threatening to throw one’s opponent in jail. In addition, although it is not uncommon for candidates to interrupt their opponents or the debate moderators, the sheer volume of interruptions this year is again far outside the norm.

In this completely changed context, an important positive feature of the second presidential debate was the conduct of the moderators, who clearly did their very best to enforce the rules of engagement and hold candidate’s responsible for their behavior. The moderators ensured that the candidates had equal time to speak and they pushed candidates to respond to prior uncivil statements. The moderators also restated questions when candidates initially failed to answer them.

NICD is nonpartisan; our mission is to decrease incivility and political dysfunction in our country. Given this, we simply cannot stay silent and act as though the two candidates are equally contributing to lowering the standards of civility in campaigning and debates. From the perspective of civility alone, the evidence continues to be overwhelming that Donald Trump has stepped completely outside the heretofore fully accepted standards of engagement in a presidential election.

NICD is not alone in this decision to speak out. Americans of all party affiliations are increasingly expressing concern over the egregious uncivil behavior they are witnessing in this campaign and their concern about what this will mean after the election is over. We are witnessing incivility becoming the norm in our public discourse. It will take all of us to join together to reassert civility as a core value in American life.

* The National Institute for Civil Discourse (NICD) worked with Robert Boatright, NICD Research Director and Professor of Political Science at Clark University, and Timothy Shaffer, NICD Research Associate and Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at Kansas State University to have student’s measure incivility using a detailed research questionnaire. Students at Clark, Kansas State, and Assumption College completed the questionnaire on the second debate.