National Poll: Civility Declining, Campaigning May Be to Blame

MEADVILLE, Pa. – Sept. 22, 2010 – A solid majority of Americans, 58 percent, believe the tone of political discourse has become worse since Barack Obama was elected president, according to a survey by the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College.  This figure has increased by 10 percent since the center’s previous survey on civility and politics, completed in April 2010.

“Many of us assumed that the tone of politics would improve after the drama over the health care debate died down.  But most Americans don’t see it that way,” noted Daniel M. Shea, director of the Center for Political Participation and co-author of the new study. “We’re still waiting for the thaw.  It’s still awfully nasty out there.”

Along similar lines, the survey found that 41 percent of Americans believe the tone of campaigns this year is worse than in previous elections.  Just 9 percent believe that campaigns are more positive than in the past, and 49 percent said things are about the same. 

Survey participants were asked if nasty campaigning is unavoidable or if it is possible for candidates to run for office in aggressive but respectful ways. Some 85 percent said respectful campaigns are possible, and only 10 percent said being nasty was unavoidable. 

A full 61 percent of respondents said the tone of campaigning this year “hurts our democracy,” while 19 percent suggested it was “healthy for our democracy.”

“Here again, Americans are anxious for greater civility in politics,” said Shea.

The survey, commissioned by Allegheny College in partnership with Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne (IPFW), was conducted by SurveyUSA, Sept. 13–16.  In all, 1,242 randomly selected registered voters were interviewed. The findings yield a margin of error of ± 3 percent.

“Resolving this issue is complicated because the only thing Republicans, Democrats and independents seemed to agree on is their general dislike of political incivility and the feeling that campaigns are hurting democracy,” noted Michael Wolf, associate professor of political science at IPFW and co-author of the study.  “When we asked who is responsible for incivility, partisans point at the other sides’ commentators and independents blame political parties.  It’s an endless loop.” 

As to why things have become worse since April, the authors speculate that the tone of campaigning might be part of it.  “Americans have grown accustomed to hard-hitting campaigning,” said Shea.  “They know this is not beanbag toss.  But a big chunk of Americans think campaigns have gotten uglier and that campaigners are coloring perceptions of the overall tone of politics.  And, let’s remember, it’s only September.”

As with the April study, the poll took a look at voter willingness to compromise.  Paralleling findings in April, some 44 percent of Americans believe it is more important for elected officials to find compromise positions, and 52 percent said standing firm on principles is more important.  Seven of 10 respondents who identify as Republicans or lean toward the Republican Party said it is more important that politicians are willing to stand firm in support of principles rather than to compromise. 

Only 27 percent of Republicans surveyed believe willingness to compromise is important for politicians.  In contrast, 63 percent of Democratic identifiers and leaners said the ability to compromise to get things done is more important for politicians than standing firm in support of principles.  Only 32 percent of Democrats said standing firm in support of principles trumps willingness to compromise as a more important trait for politicians.

“Whether this discrepancy stems from the parties’ fortunes or policy values cannot be fully determined,” said Wolf.  “Maybe rank-and-file Republicans wanted compromise and Democrats dug in their heels more when the Republicans held Congress and the White House during most of the Bush years.  Whatever the case, the results signal that the Republican base wants leaders who will not broker deals and likely explains why some Tea Party candidates have toppled establishment Republicans.  If Republicans win control in Congress, compromising with President Obama will surely not be part of their mandate.”    

The survey highlighted a different view of the “enthusiasm gap.”  Asked if the tone of the current campaign made the respondent more or less interested in getting involved, some 83 percent of Republicans said it made them more interested. Among Democrats it was 65 percent.

Republicans who view the tone as more negative compared to past campaigns are far more likely to get involved than Democrats who view the campaigns the same way – 48 percent to 33 percent.   Conversely, some 46 percent of Democrats that see the campaigns as negative said it turned them off, while just 34 percent of Republican identifiers said the same.

Noted Shea: “We’re not sure whether Republicans are mobilized across the board no matter what the tone of the campaign, or whether the negative tone may actually be mobilizing Republicans.  But the general perception of this campaign being negative may lead to big gains for the GOP. This is but another bit of bad news for Democrats.”

This survey is part of an ongoing effort at Allegheny College to develop programs and tools to help citizens assess the tone and rhetoric being used by candidates for public office. In May, the Center for Political Participation hosted a national conference of college Democrats, Republicans and independents to enhance communication, examine civility in politics and establish a high bar for the respectful exchange of ideas.

The survey findings, along with pie charts and cross tabulations, can be accessed at:  The April 2010 survey, “Nastiness, Name-calling & Negativity,” is available at


About Daniel M. Shea
Daniel M. Shea, Ph.D., is a professor of political science and the director of the Center for Political Participation at Allegheny College.  He has written or edited some 14 books on party politics, campaigns and elections, youth participation and media in politics, and he has published dozens of articles and chapters.  Two of his most recent books are “The Fountain of Youth:  Strategies and Tactics for Mobilizing America’s Young Voters” (2007), and “Living Democracy” (2010). 

About Michael Wolf
Michael Wolf, Ph.D., is an associate professor of political science at Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne.  He researches American and comparative political behavior and public opinion.  He co-edited (with Laura Morales and Ken’ichi Ikeda) the 2010 book “Political Discussion in Modern Democracies: a Comparative Perspective”  from Routledge.  Wolf has authored or co-authored more than a dozen articles, chapters and research reports for political science journals, books, encyclopedias and scholarly organizations.  

About the Center for Political Participation
In October 2002, Allegheny established the Center for Political Participation, a national center dedicated to encouraging greater political involvement among young people by fostering an appreciation for the vital link between an engaged, active citizenry and a healthy democracy.  Seeking new strategies and mechanisms for promoting political participation, the Center has established programs for three audiences – Allegheny students (campus activities), scholars nationwide (scholarly research) and citizens of the wider community (educational outreach).  In November 2007 the Center founded the Soapbox Alliance, a group of institutions that are committed to ending the practice of holding closed campaign events in campus facilities.  Former President Clinton endorsed the Soapbox Alliance in a speech he made at Allegheny on April 19, 2008.

About Allegheny College
Allegheny College is a national liberal arts college where 2,100 students with unusual combinations of interests and talents develop highly valued abilities to explore critical issues from multiple perspectives.  A selective residential college in Meadville, Pa., Allegheny is one of 40 colleges featured in Loren Pope’s Colleges that Change Lives and is also featured in “Harvard Schmarvard:  Getting Beyond the Ivy League to the College that is Best for You” and “Peterson’s Competitive Colleges, 400 Colleges that Attract the Best and the Brightest,” among many other guidebooks.

About Indiana University – Purdue University Fort Wayne
Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne is the largest public university in northeast Indiana, offering more than 200 prestigious IU and Purdue degrees and certificates. More than 14,000 students of diverse ages, races and nationalities pursue their education on a 662-acre campus. IPFW combines challenging academic programs with student-centered flexibility at an affordable price. The university’s exemplary standards in teaching and research provide unparalleled value for career preparation and professional development in an ever-changing global market. The university’s commitment to service makes it an economic, cultural, and societal leader in the region. IPFW is an Equal Opportunity/Equal Access University accredited by The Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.            

How the Poll Was Conducted
This SurveyUSA poll was conducted by telephone in the voice of a professional announcer. Respondent households were selected at random, using a Random Digit Dialed (RDD) sample provided by Survey Sampling, of Fairfield, Conn.,, unless otherwise indicated on the individual poll report. All respondents heard the questions asked identically. The reports includes: the geography that was surveyed; the date(s) interviews were conducted and the organization(s) that paid for the research. The number of respondents who answered each question and the margin of sampling error for each question are provided. Where necessary, responses were weighted according to age, gender, ethnic origin, geographical area and number of adults and number of voice telephone lines in the household, so that the sample would reflect the actual demographic proportions in the population, using the most recent U.S. Census estimates. In theory, with the stated sample size, one can say with 95 percent certainty that the results would not vary by more than the stated margin of sampling error, in one direction or the other, had the entire universe of respondents been interviewed with complete accuracy. There are other possible sources of error in all surveys that may be more serious than theoretical calculations of sampling error. These include refusals to be interviewed, question wording and question order, weighting by demographic control data and the manner in which respondents are filtered (such as determining who is a likely voter). It is difficult to quantify the errors that may result from these factors. Fieldwork for this survey was done by SurveyUSA of Clifton, N.J.