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FOR EXPERT COMMENT: MU Expert Available for Commentary and Analysis on Republican Presidential Primary Debates

June 9th, 2011

Story Contact: MU News Bureau, 573-882-6211,

The views and opinions expressed in this “for expert comment” release are based on research and/or opinions of the researcher(s) and/or faculty member(s) and do not reflect the University’s official stance.

COLUMBIA, Mo. ­— As the field of Republican presidential candidates begins to take shape, voters will have an opportunity on June 13 to evaluate the Republican hopefuls who would like to challenge President Barack Obama in the 2012 presidential election.

Mitchell S. McKinney, associate professor of communication at the University of Missouri, is an internationally recognized scholar of presidential debates.

CNN will broadcast a nationally televised debate from New Hampshire, the nation’s first primary state, with several of the leading candidates participating. Seven candidates are expected to be on the stage Monday night, including: Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, businessman Herman Cain, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, Texas Congressman Ron Paul, former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum.

Mitchell S. McKinney, associate professor of communication at the University of Missouri, is an internationally recognized scholar of presidential debates whose work in analyzing candidate debates has taken him across the country and the world.

McKinney’s research has focused particular attention on presidential primary debates, with his analysis indicating that candidates approach their primary debate performances much differently than candidates engaged in general-election debates. In addition, McKinney has found that viewers actually find early debate encounters much more useful than presidential debates that occur near the end of a long campaign.

McKinney’s extensive research on presidential debates provides answers to such questions as:

  • In a debate that features a large field of candidates, how do viewers make distinctions between candidates of the same party whose issue positions are often quite similar? McKinney says that a candidate’s image becomes an even more prominent cue for primary debate viewers.
  • How do candidates emerge from a large field of candidates to distinguish themselves from their rivals? McKinney notes the difficult and often sensitive attack strategies that primary candidates must employ when clashing with their opponents. It is a delicate balance while attempting to maintain party loyalty and unity.
  • How do early primary debates help organize a large field of candidates into the front runners, the contenders, and the also-rans? McKinney’s research has found that voters use primary debates to help them “organize” or narrow a large field of candidates to the one or two front runners who might be most likely to get the nomination, those candidates who might be deserving of a second look (the contenders), and those candidates who seem to be included in the field and are on the debate stage to influence the party’s agenda and also bring a bit of excitement to the race (the also-rans).

  • How do primary debates help a party and voters address the key issue of candidate electability and strongest candidate in the general election? McKinney notes that Republicans will use a year-long marathon of primary debates to test which Republican is best suited to challenge Barack Obama in the fall of 2012.

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. McKinney also served as an advisor to the presidential debate committee of South Korea in 2002 as Seoul officials planned their very first televised presidential debates.

In addition to advising international, national, state and local campaign debate planning committees, McKinney is the co-author of Presidential Debates in Focus, and he has co-authored and edited four other books and numerous research articles on presidential debates.