The Changing Language Of The Presidential Debate

And what we can expect will be discussed this year

Photo Illustration: R. A. Di Ieso
Sep 26, 2016 at 4:52 PM ET

The first official presidential debate of the election season is expected to be something of a spectacle. At their best, debates have helped inform the nation of the issues considered most pressing to the presidential and vice presidential candidates, moderators, and the country at large. At worst, they are policy-heavy yawnfests. This has the potential to be neither.

Regardless, it will hit several current hot-button issues, and Vocativ analyzed all language used during the past 10 elections’ presidential debates to see how those priorities have shifted over time.

For Monday night’s debate, the topics will be “America’s Direction,” “Achieving Prosperity,” and “Securing America.” Which is pretty much as vague as it gets. But given the way some subjects have risen to the tip of candidate’s tongues in recent years, it’s not too hard see how certain words and phrases may take center stage again tonight.

While much has changed in 40 years, some national priorities have endured. With very little exception, the word “taxes” has topped debate word counts with unparalleled consistency, proof of the old adage that “nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” Aside from the no-brainer words “American,” and “government,” taxes has been the most-mentioned word every election year with the exception of 2004, when “Iraq” took its place. The debates that year came a year and a half into the Iraq War, and the country’s name appeared in debate transcripts 149 times. At the first debate, almost half of all the questions directed at then-President George W. Bush had to do with the ongoing war , which was facing eroding support from the electorate for the first time.

“Has the war in Iraq been worth the cost of American lives, 1,052 as of today?” moderator Jim Lehrer asked at one point, causing Bush to lower his eyes and flounder before ending his response in the affirmative.

Bush was also questioned as to what criteria he would use in evaluating whether or not it was time to start bringing U.S. troops back home.

On Monday night, it wouldn’t be surprising to see mentions of Iraq skyrocket again should Donald Trump’s false claims that he was “totally opposed to the war in Iraq,” become conversation fodder. That said, it’s far more likely to see Trump to expound on the Middle East as a general entity, specifically in regard to the “threat of radical Islam,” how much the region has become a destabilized threat to Americans (something he has blamed on President Obama in the past), and to throw in a few Benghazi references for good measure.

While Iraq was the most-discussed foreign country in both 2004 and 2008, Iran has since taken its place given the ongoing issue of the country’s nuclear security threat, and the deal which seeks to counter it. Trump has been extremely vocal about how bad a deal he thinks that is, and as Clinton was one of its main architects, it’s likely to crop up.

The spectre of nuclear war is a resurgent concern in debates, having faded from view after the late 1980s brought about the end of the cold war. Between 1992 and 2000, the word “nuclear” faded from view in presidential debates with other concerns pushing it off the menu. But with plenty of media speculation about what a Trump finger on the finger on the metaphorical “nuclear button” could mean for humanity, it’s once again a major talking point.

Clinton has invoked the notion before, stating that “[Trump] is not someone who should ever have the nuclear codes.” Trump himself has allegedly displayed a disturbing lack of understanding for the concept of mutually assured destruction as a deterrent — the concept that if one nation launched nukes, the inevitable retaliation could end the human race. He has also suggested that non-nuclear countries like Japan should have access to nuclear weapons, which runs contrary to the Non-Proliferation Treaty, a piece of international law designed to stop more countries acquiring nuclear weapons, to which the USA and Japan are both signatories. Expect discussion of Trump’s credibility and suitability for being the man with the power to end civilization to enter into the debate in some form.

Another country that’s risen dramatically in terms of debate mentions is China, specifically in relation to trade. In October 2012, moderator Bob Schieffer dedicated an open-ended question to the “rise of China,” leading to extensive discussion between President Obama and Mitt Romney of economic partnership. Donald Trump’s fondness for discussing China is pretty well-known — he’ll work it into any given conversation about business, or how America is failing. So we can definitely expect the name-dropping to continue.

Mexico, Trump’s other favorite country to trash-talk, will also likely come up as conversation turns to how the candidates plan to secure America. Mexican immigration was a hot debate topic from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, following Ronald Reagan’s famous rhetoric that the U.S. had “lost control of its borders” and was facing an “invasion,” and Bill Clinton’s strict immigration policy. While the number of deportations has hit a new high, discussion of Mexico at the debates has remained low. Until now, that is. Trump has relentlessly claimed he’d build a wall on Mexico’s border (and of course, having the Mexican government pay for it) so it’s inevitably discussion going to come up tonight.

When it comes to social issues, discussion of women, college, health, and the middle classat Presidential debates can be quite telling. College has arguably been a greater priority for the Obama administration any other recent presidency, and we can expect it will come up again on Monday. The word “women,” also garnered unparalleled attention in the last set of presidential debates, with Obama discussing the Lily Ledbetter bill on equal pay and contraceptive coverage. Trump’s to-and-fro comments on Planned Parenthood will surface at some point, but his comments about women in general will make for tetchy moments in a debate against America’s first female presidential candidate.

On health, we can expect that Trump will continue to trash the Affordable Care Act during these presidential debates, bringing health to the fore again. The debates ahead of Obama’s first term saw health mentioned more than ever before, but it tapered off slightly during the 2012 round, just as it did in Bill Clinton’s second round of debates.