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Every vote matters: College students weigh in after U.S. Senate debate in Missouri

MU political communication experts share results following a debate-viewing study of 70 college students for Thursday’s televised U.S. Senate debate

October 19th, 2018

Story Contact: Eric Stann, 573-882-3346,

COLUMBIA, Mo. – Results of a debate-viewing study of college students reveal that the students thought Republican Josh Hawley outperformed incumbent Democrat Claire McCaskill, 51 percent to 33 percent, in Thursday night’s televised U.S. Senate debate. Among 70 participants, support for both candidates increased overall, according to the study coordinated by the University of Missouri’s Political Communication Institute.

“Hawley seemed to have a leg up on the point-by-point sparring in the debate, and now voters have to decide who they trust more,” said Ben Warner, co-director of the Political Communication Institute.

Among the participants:

  • Hawley’s performance increased students’ likelihood of voting for him from 30 percent before the debate to 48 percent following it.
  • Claire McCaskill’s support increased from 21 percent before the debate to 36 percent after the debate.
  • Before the debate, 49 percent of students surveyed were undecided; afterward only 16 percent remained undecided.
  • Among participants in this study, 41 percent self-identified as Republicans, 41 percent as Democrats, and 17 percent as Independents.

“In what is certain to be a close race, every vote matters, and debates have the potential to tip the scales,” said Joel Reed, a research associate with the institute.

The debate viewers’ overall likelihood to vote in the upcoming midterms also increased, from 57 percent before the debate to 67 percent afterwards.

“That college students who watched the debate became more likely to vote and more likely to favor a candidate shows that televised debates matter, and I hope voters across the country tune in to the remaining debates in their respective elections in the closing weeks,” said Josh Bramlett, an MU research associate. “Viewing the debate made many students who were initially undecided shift toward supporting one of the candidates. Although Hawley had the better night according to our respondents, the overall trends were positive for both candidates.”

Thursday night’s debate was moderated by PBS NewsHour anchor Judy Woodruff and co-sponsored by the St. Louis PBS, NBC, and NPR affiliates. The race between Hawley and McCaskill has been identified as one of five “toss-up” Senate races in this year’s midterm elections by Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia. The election is Nov. 6.