I spent Monday night clicking a button on my computer each time Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump interrupted each other (or host Lester Holt) during the first presidential debate.
I ended up clicking that button a whole lot.
The result was this graphic, produced about halfway through the debate, which quickly went viral.
Hillary Clinton was interrupted 40 times in the first 26 minutes of the presidential debate. pic.twitter.com/chM4JS1gbB— Sarah Kliff (@sarahkliff) September 27, 2016
I kept counting till the end of the night and found that Trump ultimately interrupted Clinton 51 times, significantly more than Clinton’s 17 interruptions of Trump.
I wasn’t the only one counting interruptions during the debate.
The New York Times found that Trump interrupted Clinton 39 times while she only interrupted him eight times. Time used the debate transcript to identify 84 interruptions, 55 of which came from Trump. FiveThirtyEight even tried to classify the types of interruptions that occurred.
Vox decided to count interruptions — and I’m guessing other outlets did too — because we knew about research showing that in professional situations, women tend to get interrupted significantly more than men. So we wanted to see whether that dynamic would be in play as Clinton became the first woman to participate in a presidential debate.
My reporting led to a question from a lot of readers: Was the disparity in interruptions really about gender? In other words: How much of what we saw Monday was Trump just being his usual outspoken self, and how much of it was actually related to how men act in a debate?
This is, in some ways, an impossible question to answer. We’ve only had one woman participate in a presidential debate; we can’t look back at the gender dynamic in prior debates because the candidates, up until now, have always been the same gender.
But what I could do was look at how men interact with each other when they’re put onstage together in the same situation. So I recently watched the first debate between Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama in 2012 and counted the number of times they interrupted each other to see how it was — or wasn’t — different from what we saw this election cycle.
Here’s what I came away thinking: The interactions between Clinton and Trump reflected both the particulars of the candidates (namely, Trump’s brash debating style) and the larger gender dynamics (how Clinton might face specific scrutiny for pushing back on interruptions). The two came together in a way that led to significantly more interruptions than we saw in the first presidential debate of the 2012 cycle.
When Obama and Romney debated, direct interruptions were infrequent, and more than half were from the moderator
Watching the first debate between President Obama and Gov. Romney, I was immediately struck by just how politely and infrequently they interrupted each other.
In total, Obama interrupted Romney seven times and Romney interrupted Obama just four times. Romney spent far more time interrupting moderator Jim Lehrer (12 times); Obama interrupted Lehrer just five times. Meanwhile, Lehrer by far had the most interruptions — 38 in total, 15 directed at Obama and 23 directed at Romney.
As the above numbers suggest, the bulk of interruptions were either directed at Lehrer, the moderator, or happened because Lehrer was trying to rein in Romney and Obama’s answers, as both candidates consistently went over time in their responses.
Granted, Lehrer had quite the time trying to corral both men’s answers, and the press was not impressed with his performance — but the types of interruptions we saw when Obama and Romney took the stage were dramatically different from what we witnessed Monday night.
Perhaps most telling, though, was that neither candidate angrily interjected his disagreement with the other’s response as Trump did repeatedly to Clinton Monday night.
In a way, watching the Obama-Romney debate was less illuminating than I’d hoped, because it was so different from the debate we watched Monday — not just for the fact that there wasn’t a woman onstage but also because the two 2012 candidates had significantly different debating styles than what Trump brought to the stage.
Trump interrupted Clinton frequently Monday night because interruptions are part of his debate strategy
There is a valid case to be made that what we witnessed Monday night — the sheer volume and ferocity of Trump’s interjections — had to do with the gender dynamic at play and with Trump’s flagrant disregard for conventional norms, including debate decorum.
If you read what my colleague Libby Nelson wrote about Trump’s seven key moves during the Republican primary debates, you’ll note that one of the candidate’s key debate tactics actually involves trying to shout down and humiliate his opponents. Nelson points out that it wasn’t because Trump was trying to dispute a policy issue but rather that he wanted to be the one talking.
Nelson notes that Trump was careful to avoid this tactic with Carly Fiorina in the Republican primary debates. But as we saw Monday night, he had no qualms interrupting Clinton just as he did Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio during the primaries.
That said, as my colleague Emily Crockett notes, the fact that Clinton is a woman means she has a far greater chance of being on the receiving end of these kinds of interruptions than a man in her position. What’s more, Clinton stands a far greater risk of being criticized for how she reacts. So it makes sense that she was more reticent to participate in the interruptions, and that her numbers were closer to (although still higher than) Obama and Romney’s in 2012.
It’s really hard, Crockett writes, to distinguish among the different factors that created the discrepancy in interruptions:
It’s true that interruptions are a complicated subject in sociolinguistics. Gender isn’t the only factor that determines patterns of interruption; an individual’s social status or cultural upbringing also matters a lot.
Statistically speaking, though, being a woman makes Clinton more likely to be on the receiving end of these kinds of interruptions — and, on top of that, more likely to be criticized for the way she responds to them.
So for the second and third presidential debates, I’ll continue to track the number of interruptions, as we try to understand what’s happening and how much of what we’re witnessing is a continuation of the subtle — and, in this case, often not so subtle — sexism that women experience in once male-dominated spaces.