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Expert Available: Presidential Debates May Influence Outcome of 2012 Presidential Election Says MU Expert

Sept. 25, 2012

Story Contact(s):
Timothy Wall, walltj@missouri.edu, 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.

With polls showing presidential candidates Barack Obama and Mitt Romney locked in a tight race, many are predicting that the first presidential debate on Oct. 3 could be a turning point in the election.

Mitchell McKinney, University of Missouri professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science and internationally recognized scholar of presidential debates, has identified the specific conditions necessary for debates to be influential in the outcome of an election. Key elements that increase the impact of presidential debates include:

  • 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’s analysis has found that debates were influential in other close presidential contests, including the elections of 1960, 1976, 1980 and 2000; and he believes that conditions are once again in place for debates to be influential in the 2012 election.

McKinney has conducted extensive research of presidential candidates’ debate performances, including the numerous primary and presidential debates that have included Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. In fact, as McKinney notes, Mitt Romney now holds the record among all presidential debaters for participating in more primary debates than any other general-election presidential candidate.

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 has co-authored and edited five books and numerous research articles on presidential debates. He also advised the presidential debate commission of South Korea as Seoul officials planned their 2002 televised presidential debates.

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