Allegheny Survey: 2016 Presidential Campaign Reveals Chilling Trend Lines For Civility in U.S. Politics

October 17, 2016 (Meadville, PA) – As American voters await the third and final presidential debate this week, a landmark new Zogby Survey on Civility in U.S. Politics commissioned by Allegheny College reveals chilling trend lines for civility in America. The September 2016 survey of 1,286 adults, which revisits the same questions asked in Allegheny’s 2010 benchmark civility survey, shows that this year’s presidential campaign appears to be the most uncivil in recent American politics. And the uncivil behavior appears to be numbing the electorate.

“These findings are stunning and deeply disturbing for everyone who believes civil discourse is essential to the long-term health of our democracy,” said Allegheny College President James H. Mullen, Jr.

For example, in 2010, 89% of respondents said commenting on another’s race or ethnicity in a political engagement was not okay. Today that number has dropped to 69%, a full 20 points. Similarly, 81% said commenting on someone’s sexual orientation was not acceptable. Today that number is 65%.

And the percentage of voters who believe elected officials should pursue personal friendships with members of other parties plummeted even more precipitously, from 85 percent to 56 percent.

“As the leader of one of the oldest liberal arts colleges in America, a place where we encourage healthy, spirited debate on important matters of the day, and respect for the dignity of every individual, the notion that there is greater comfort with personal attacks in the political process is terribly concerning,” said Mullen. “We launched the Allegheny College Prize for Civility in Public Life five years ago after polling data told us incivility was becoming more of a concern for Americans. It is now clear that voters not only view this year’s campaign as the most uncivil in recent memory, but many are beginning to lower their standards for civility in politics. It is a double dose of bad news for our democracy.”

Deeply troubled by the rise of incivility in U.S. politics, and its negative impacts on political participation, particularly among young people, the College created the Civility Prize in 2011 to highlight and reinforce the unheralded public figures who strive to positively advance civility. The 2016 winners were Vice President Joe Biden and Senator John McCain.

The survey found fewer voters today hold civility to be important or even possible. Eighty percent of 2016 respondents said they believe civility in politics is important for a healthy democracy, compared to 95% in 2010. And 77% of 2016 respondents said it is possible for people to disagree respectfully, compared to 87% of 2010 respondents.

But even more stark was the evolving definition of civility. When asked to create a rulebook for civility in politics, here is what voters said should NOT be okay:

2010 2016
Interrupting someone you disagree with in a public forum 77% 51%
Shouting over someone you disagree with during an argument 86% 65%
Belittling or insulting someone 89% 74%
Personal attacks on someone you disagree with 87% 71%
Questioning someone’s patriotism because they have a different opinion 73% 52%

“When examining the state of civility among adults who were surveyed, based on the survey questions that were asked both in 2010 and 2016, there seems to be less emphasis on, and a decrease in, acts of civility among adults nationwide,” said Jonathon Zogby, CEO of Zogby Analytics. “That might explain the state of politics at the moment, especially when taking into consideration the broken system in Washington D.C. and the state of the 2016 presidential election.”

The 2016 survey also asked how respondents would rate the civility of recent presidential elections. The respondents found the Trump/Clinton election to be the most uncivil by a wide margin.

Extremely or very uncivil Extremely or very civil
2016 Trump/Clinton 63% 11%
2012 Obama/Romney 20% 41%
2008 Obama/McCain 18% 41%
2004 Bush/Kerry 16% 35%

When looking at the individual candidates in recent presidential elections, the two 2016 candidates also ranked most uncivil.

Extremely or very uncivil Extremely or very civil
Donald Trump 59% 18%
Hillary Clinton 32% 41%
Barack Obama 26% 54%
Mitt Romney 19% 41%
George W. Bush 16% 50%
John McCain 14% 46%

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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. Allegheny is one of the nation’s oldest liberal-arts colleges, celebrating its 200th anniversary of learning at its picturesque campus in 2015.

About Zogby Analytics

Zogby Analytics is respected nationally and internationally for its opinion research capabilities. Since 1984, Zogby has empowered clients with powerful information and knowledge critical for making informed strategic decisions.

The firm conducts multi-phased opinion research engagements for banking and financial services institutions, insurance companies, hospitals and medical centers, retailers and developers, religious institutions, cultural organizations, colleges and universities, IT companies and Federal agencies. Zogby’s dedication and commitment to excellence and accuracy are reflected in its state-of-the-art opinion research capabilities and objective analysis and consultation.

Survey Methodology and Sample Characteristics

Zogby Analytics was commissioned by Allegheny College to conduct an online survey of 1286 adults in the United States. Included in the data were 1093 likely voters. Using internal and trusted interactive partner resources, thousands of adults were randomly invited to participate in this interactive survey. Each invitation was password coded and secure so that one respondent could only access the survey one time. Using information based on census data, voter registration figures, CIA fact books and exit polls, we use complex weighting techniques to best represent the demographics of the population being surveyed. Weighted variables may include age, race, gender, region, party, education, and religion. Based on a confidence interval of 95%, the margin of error for 1286 adults is +/- 2.7 percentage points. The margin of error for 1093 voters is +/- 3.0 percentage points for the likely voters sub-set. This means that all other things being equal, if the identical survey were repeated, its confidence intervals would contain the true value of parameters 95 times out of 100. Subsets of the data have a larger margin of error than the whole data set. As a rule we do not rely on the validity of very small subsets of the data especially sets smaller than 50-75 respondents. At that subset we can make estimations based on the data, but in these cases the data is more qualitative than quantitative. Additional factors can create error, such as question wording and question order.