Personal insults now part of the political mainstream

A sitting congressman, Republican Steve King of Ohio, wondered aloud in a tweet whether former Secretary of State and Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton would be "on her meds or off her meds." His GOP colleague, Rep. Robert Pittenger, said the African-American protesters in his home state of North Carolina "hate white people, because white people are successful and they're not." An Ohio county chair for Republican Donald Trump's campaign resigned after blaming President Barack Obama for racism and saying African-Americans have an unfair advantage over whites. And a former aide for Rep. Joe Heck, R-Nev., took to Twitter to question the Mexican-American heritage of the Mexican-American Democratic Senate nominee, adding that the identification was only important in applying for scholarships or running for office.

In past political seasons, such comments might have dominated the national news or doomed a candidate's campaign. But in the current environment, when insults and outrageous comments come too fast for pundits and voters to digest before the next one surfaces, offensive and racist remarks become just another part of the modern election dialogue.

More heated moments from Monday night's debate

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Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump face off in first presidential debate
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Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump face off in first presidential debate
U.S. Secret Service agents walk onto the debate floor before the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Workers on the stage prepare for the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
A TV cameraman works during a rehearsal for the first U.S. presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York September 25, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
The media center for the first U.S. presidential debate is seen at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S. September 24, 2016. REUTERS/Rick Wilking
Ivanka Trump arrives for the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016. / AFP / Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
Chris Christie, governor of New Jersey, waves to an attendee in the audience ahead of the first U.S. presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet Monday night for a presidential debate that will give them their broadest exposure to voters and promises to be a pivotal moment in a long and increasingly close race. Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images
HEMPSTEAD, NY - SEPTEMBER 26: Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump's wife, Melania Trump greets with Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's husband and former U.S. President Bill Clinton during the Presidential Debate at Hofstra University on September 26, 2016 in Hempstead, New York. The first of four debates for the 2016 Election, three Presidential and one Vice Presidential, is moderated by NBC's Lester Holt. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Republican candidate for Vice President Mike Pence looks on before the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016. / AFP / Paul J. Richards (Photo credit should read PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton waves after the first presidential debate against Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump (not shown) at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (L) and Republican nominee Donald Trump leave the stage after the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016. / AFP / Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton (R) gestures next to Republican nominee Donald Trump during the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York on September 26, 2016. / AFP / Timothy A. CLARY (Photo credit should read TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images)
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Moderator Lester Holt presides over the first debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Raedle/Pool
Melania Trump (L-R), the wife of Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump, sits with his daughter Ivanka Trump, Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence and Pence's wife Karen Pence during Trump's first debate against Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S. September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie (R) and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani chat as they take their seats ahead of the start of the first debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban arrives at the U.S. presidential debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson sits with his wife Miriam as they await the start of the first debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump Democratic and U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Promoter Don King Don King (C) speaks with Las Vegas casino owner Sheldon Adelson prior to the first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Mike Segar
Former U.S. President Bill Clinton (C) talks with his daughter Chelsea Clinton prior to the first presidential debate between Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump and U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. At right is Marc Mezvinsky, the husband of Chelsea Clinton. REUTERS/Carlos Barria
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speak during their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump reacts during the first presidential debate with Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton smiles during the first presidential debate with Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump reacts during the first debate with Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton speaks during the first presidential debate with Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks as Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton looks on during their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speaks during the first presidential debate with Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Debate moderator Lester Holt of NBC News replaces his jacket after a technician fixed his earpiece before the first debate between Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S. September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump pauses during the first debate with Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump speak during their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump and Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton discuss a point during their first presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Raedle/Pool
Donald Trump, 2016 Republican presidential nominee, speaks during the first U.S. presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., on Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump meet Monday night for a presidential debate that will give them their broadest exposure to voters and promises to be a pivotal moment in a long and increasingly close race. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton pauses during the first presidential debate with Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Raedle/Pool
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump sips water during his first debate with Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Joe Raedle/Pool
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump (2nd from L) chats with members of his family after the conclusion of his first debate with Democratic U.S. presidential nominee Hillary Clinton at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York, U.S., September 26, 2016. REUTERS/Adrees Latif
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"The rules have changed, and that includes the rules for what is acceptable and not acceptable. The shock value is gone," says Lee Miringoff, director of the nonpartisan Marist Institute for Public Opinion in Poughkeepsie, New York. Whether because of political polarization or the campaign against so-called political correctness, "The rules of civility definitely have taken a back seat. This is becoming part of our mode of interaction and people are saying things that would have been totally absurd not too long ago – and still are, for some people."

In 2006, then-Virginia Sen. George Allen repeatedly called a Democratic volunteer "tracker" – someone who follows the opposing campaign and records them, hoping they'll say something foolish – a "macaca." Allen apologized for the characterization after being told it was considered a racial slur against African or Asian immigrants. But Allen lost anyway, with the episode used against him in his tight race for re-election.

In 2012, Rep. Todd Akin, R-Mo., was well on his way to unseating Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill until he told an interviewer that women can't get pregnant in cases of "legitimate rape." McCaskill cruised to re-election, in large part because of a 21-point advantage among female voters. Republican Indiana Senate candidate Richard Mourdock lost in the red state the same year after he said that pregnancy after a rape was "something God intended."

Such remarks at the time were politically scandalous and political career-ending for those candidates. Now, in a season when the GOP nominee has called Mexican immigrants "rapists" and "criminals" and has questioned the ability of a Latino judge to be impartial, the scandals of yore seem almost quaint. And while Clinton has run many ads showcasing Trump's remarks about women, immigrants, veterans and disabled people, the two contenders are still neck-and-neck in national polls, indicating that Trump's remarks aren't damaging him with voters.

"Trump doesn't come out of nowhere, but he certainly has taken it to a new level," says Peter Montgomery, senior fellow at People for the American Way, a civil liberties group which has been very critical of Trump. Part of the escalation in rhetoric, Montgomery says, has been the advent of technology, which he says has allowed extremists to connect with one another and become more emboldened in their message. The push-back against "political correctness," or what some see as an excessive effort to massage language to avoid offense, has also led some people to let loose on Twitter and other social media platforms, Miringoff and others say. And the ease of social media might make some people more likely to say something online they might not utter in person or write on paper.

But the line, experts agree, has definitely moved this election season, with even people in elected office (or seeking it) saying things that would have lost them their jobs or influence not long ago. In 2002, for example, then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott lauded his Republican colleague, South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, at his 100th birthday party, noting that Lott's home state of Mississippi had voted for former segregationist Thurmond for president in 1948. "We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either," Lott said at the celebration.

Lott saw it as a relatively innocuous, kind remark to an aged colleague. But others – including then-President George W. Bush – slammed Lott, who was forced to step down as majority leader. Pittenger has apologized, but has suffered no other fallout from his remarks. Heck, despite repeated demands from Democratic nominee Catherine Cortez Masto, has refused to apologize for the remarks by the former campaign aide, who also accused Cortez Masto of "hispandering." And it's not clear it will matter.

"There's the media-Twitter conversation, and then there's the voter," says University of Nevada Las Vegas political science professor David Damore. Cortez Masto could use the slur as an opportunity to get more Latinos out to vote, and that could conceivably make a difference in the tight race, he says. But many of her voters are more focused on the presidential race and a referendum about funding a stadium for a new NFL team, Damore says. "The broader electorate... It probably doesn't care" about the slur, he adds.

#TrumpSniffle trends during first presidential debate

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#TrumpSniffle trends during first presidential debate
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#TrumpSniffle trends during first presidential debate
Notice Trump sniffing all the time. Coke user?
#debatenight sponsored by Kleenex. #trumpsniff
#Trumpsniff #Debates2016 You can take the man out of Studio 54, but its hard to get it out of the man... https://t.co/3YihKiLJg3
OMG, the sniffling is so annoying. #Trumpsniff #debatenight
The symbolism of #trumpsniff is so grandeur. I mean aren't we all getting sick of seeing his run for presidency taken seriously?
Trickle down economics is what is happening with Donald Trump's nose right now. #debatenight #TrumpSniffle
Trump is getting flustered. #debates #debatenight #TrumpSniffle
Hillary gave Donald her cold. #debatenight #TrumpSniffle
That didn't take long. #trumpsniffle https://t.co/WZawICARy4
Is something wrong with Donald's health? #TrumpSniffle
Is Trump OK? He's drinking a lot of water, and the #trumpsniffle seems to say otherwise #debatenight #channelingRubio?
Ok so the #TrumpSniffle is becoming a thing
I thought his health was hugely excellent??? #Trump, you disappoint! #TrumpSniffle #debatenight https://t.co/Q2KkQt0V9M
Trump's sniffle got worse when Hilary brought up his dad's money. #TrumpSniffle #TeddyKGBsOreos
Someone give him a damn tissue! #Trumpsniffle #debates
Maybe Donald Trump has pneumonia? #trumpsniffle #debatenight
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Miringoff says the peculiarly brash tone of the Trump campaign has had a ripple effect. "Trump has run up a whole line of" insults. "That gives cover to others," Miringoff says.

But don't expect the tone to change after the election, Montgomery warns. "I think that's going to be very damaging to the country whether or not Trump wins," Montgomery says. "You can't put it back in the bottle."

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