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MU Expert Says Presidential Debates Likely to be as Significant as 1960 Kennedy-Nixon Debate

Sept. 22, 2008

Story Contact:  Jeffrey Beeson, (573) 882-9144,

            COLUMBIA, Mo. - With many polls showing presidential candidates Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain in a dead heat, many are predicting that the first presidential debate on Sept. 26 could be a turning point in the election. In addition, with the surprising selection of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as John McCain's running mate, the St. Louis vice presidential debate could be the most viewed in U.S. history. 

            Mitchell McKinney, University of Missouri associate professor of communication and internationally recognized scholar of presidential debates, has identified the specific conditions necessary for debates to be influential in the outcome o' an election. McKinney assessed key elements in the current presidential race:    
  • voters' familiarity or comfort level with the candidates
  • how close the race remains at the outset of a debate series
  • the number of undecided or leaning voters
  • the strength - or weakness - of traditional party allegiances 

           McKinney says the upcoming presidential debates have the potential to be as significant as the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon debates and the 1980 Reagan-Carter encounters.

            McKinney has conducted extensive research of various candidates' debate performances, including the numerous Democratic and Republican primary debates that featured both Barack Obama and John McCain.

            In 1992, McKinney consulted with the Commission on Presidential Debates, advising the Commission on how debates could be structured in order to better educate citizens on significant campaign issues. The co-author of The 1992 Presidential Debates in Focus, he co-authored and edited four other books and numerous research articles on presidential debates. Most recently, he advised the presidential debate committee of South Korea as Seoul officials planned their 2002 televised presidential debates.