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MU Expert Available for Media Commentary on Democratic Presidential Primary Debates

June 20th, 2019

Story Contact: Eric Stann, 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.

On Wednesday, June 26, and Thursday, June 27, the first Democratic presidential primary debates will take place in Miami, Florida, and be broadcasted nationally by NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo. These debates will offer voters their first chance to assess the Democratic contenders side by side as they seek their party’s 2020 presidential nomination. The University of Missouri has an expert available for media commentary on these presidential primary debates.

Mitchell S. McKinney, a professor of political communication at the University of Missouri, is an internationally recognized scholar of presidential debates whose work in analyzing candidate debates has taken him around the world. McKinney is also director of the Political Communication Institute at MU.

In 1992, McKinney advised the Commission on Presidential Debates 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 town hall style presidential debate. He also served as an advisor to the 2002 presidential debate committee of South Korea as Seoul officials planned their first televised presidential debates.

McKinney’s extensive research on presidential primary debates provides insight on the following questions:

  • How important are the presidential primary debates within the broader scope of the campaign? McKinney’s analysis indicates that a candidate’s debate performance at this formative stage of the campaign can greatly enhance – or hinder – one’s ability to emerge as the eventual nominee. McKinney notes how these early primary debates help sift a large field of candidates into the front-runners, the contenders and the unsuccessful candidates.
  • How do candidates approach their performance in the primary debates versus the general election? His research has shown that candidates approach their primary debate performances much differently than general-election debates, and viewers actually find these early debate encounters much more useful than presidential debates that occur toward the end of a long campaign.
  • In a debate that features a large field of candidates, how do viewers make distinctions between candidates of the same party whose issue positions may be similar? McKinney says a candidate’s image, including personality, style, physical appearance and character, is used by viewers to differentiate between candidates with similar issue positions.
  • What challenges do primary candidates have when attempting to distinguish themselves from others while simultaneously maintaining party loyalty and unity? McKinney notes that primary candidates often struggle with difficult attack strategies and comparisons while attempting to still maintain some sense of party loyalty and unity.