by Michael O'Neill
October 4th, 2012

We at Weber Shandwick and Powell Tate with KRC Research take the topic of civility seriously (see Civility in America, our third annual survey) because it impacts the reputation of the US and affects public discourse. The new survey we just released is among 1,053 adults, 18+, and was conducted between September 14-16th. Data were weighted to align with the US population distribution.

We found two-thirds (66%) of likely voters saying incivility was a major problem in society, with 85% also saying political campaigns are uncivil. By a margin of almost 2 to1 (62% to 32%), likely voters said incivility has always been part of the political process but more than three-quarters (78%) said incivility in politics is worse now than it has ever been.

Since the debates are upon us, we decided to ask Americans about they perceived the civility of the candidates. Here is what we learned — there is a civility gap between the candidates:

A majority of likely voters (55%) considers President Obama’s campaign tone to be civil, while a plurality, (49%) perceives Governor Romney’s tone as uncivil. The civility gap is potentially significant because nearly half of likely voters polled — 48% — say the candidate’s civility will be a “very important” factor in how they vote.

The gap was much less pronounced for the Vice Presidential candidates. Vice President Biden was seen as civil by a margin of 49 percent to 43 percent while likely voters were evenly split in their assessment of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan, with 46 percent saying he was civil and the same number saying he had been uncivil.

Fifty-seven percent of likely voters say that any incivility demonstrated on the debate stage will affect their votes. The sentiment was shared equally by self-described Democrats (54%), Republicans (55%) and Independents (58%).

If you saw the Wall Street Journal article on incivility online, we could have told them that 23% of likely voters said they defriended someone on Facebook or stopped following them on Twitter not because of their political views but because those views were expressed uncivilly.

And when it comes to tuning out of political advertising, a sizeable 75% of likely voters are doing so and nearly as many – 72% — are tuning out when they receive emails asking for political campaign support. My in-box is full, how’s yours?

All of this comes down to the degradation of political reputations in the future. We learned that 73% of likely voters say that incivility in politics deters qualified people from going into public service. That’s a large number and if it is as true as it must be, we have a lot of work ahead of us.

Dr. Leslie Gaines-Ross is chief reputation strategist at Weber Shandwick

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