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EXPERT AVAILABLE: Hillary Clinton May Have to Alter Her ‘Above it All’ Approach

October 9th, 2015

Story Contact: Jeff Sossamon, 573-882-3346,

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. – All eyes will be on presumed front-runner Hillary Clinton as the Democratic presidential hopefuls square off in their very first primary debate on Tuesday, Oct. 13, broadcast nationally by CNN. Mitchell S. McKinney, professor of communication at the University of Missouri and an international expert on presidential debates, said Tuesday night’s debate will be a pivotal moment for Clinton, and also for her principal challenger Bernie Sanders.

McKinney has closely examined Clinton’s previous debate performances, including her presidential run and primary debates in 2008, as well as her U.S. Senate campaign debates. In addition, he has published research on gender dynamics in political campaigns, including mixed-gender campaign debates. His analysis has found that female candidates are often more likely to use so-called “masculine” communication strategies in their debate performances as their male counterparts.

“In the past, Hillary Clinton has frequently adopted an ‘above it all’ debate strategy, resisting direct confrontation with her primary opponents and often refusing to rebut attacks made against her,” McKinney said. “Yet, with the momentum of challenger Bernie Sanders, and with Joe Biden’s serious consideration of entering the Democratic race, Clinton must now deliver a forceful debate performance that could require her to alter her typical debate style.”

McKinney’s extensive research has focused particular attention on presidential primary debates, with his analysis indicating that a candidate’s debate performance at this formative stage of the campaign can greatly enhance—or hinder—their ability to emerge as the eventual nominee. McKinney’s work also has identified key debate strategies that candidates use to distinguish themselves from their party rivals and emerge from a large field of opponents.

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’s research was influential in the creation of the presidential town hall debate. He 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 a number of books and numerous research articles on presidential debates.