University of Missouri Political Debate Expert Says First Fall Presidential Debate Is Pivotal In Race To White House

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President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden
Donald Trump during a rally in October 2016, at Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. Editorial credit: Matt Smith Photographer / Joe Biden delivering remarks on the Trump administration’s actions in Iraq at Chelsea Piers on January 2020 in New York City. Editorial credit: Ron Adar /, licensed.

COLUMBIA, MO – With less than two months to go before Election Day, polls are showing a tight race between President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden. How these candidates perform on Sept. 29, the first of three scheduled debates this fall, will be pivotal in determining the outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, says presidential debate expert Mitchell S. McKinney, director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri.

McKinney, a professor of political communication, has served as a staff member in both the U.S. Senate and the White House, consulted with the Commission on Presidential Debates on the development of the “town hall” debate format and how debates can be structured in order to better educate citizens on significant campaign issues. His expertise has also been featured in Bloomberg TV, NPR, Reuters and The Washington Post.

Based on his previous analysis of presidential debates, McKinney notes two conditions are needed for debates to influence the outcome of an election: a tight race and a sufficient number of undecided or not firmly committed voters.

“Over the years, I’ve found that presidential debates were most influential in other close contests, including the presidential elections of 1960, 1976, 1980 and 2000,” he said. “Once again, the conditions are present for the upcoming debates to be influential in determining the outcome of the 2020 election.”

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McKinney has also conducted extensive research on debate performances by presidential candidates, including the numerous primary and general election debate performances of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden.

“When a president is seeking re-election, the principal focus of the debate is largely on the incumbent, who must provide a defense of their record and make the case they deserve another four years,” McKinney said. “Defending his record on the COVID-19 crisis, the most important issue to voters, will be key for Donald Trump. Joe Biden must convince voters he can handle the issues he claims Trump has failed to address; and Biden will need to deliver a vigorous debate performance demonstrating he is ready to fulfill the demanding duties of the presidency, especially as questions of Biden’s stamina and fitness for office have been repeatedly raised by Trump.”

McKinney suggests the Trump-Biden debates could also set new records for the number of viewers watching a televised presidential debate, and surpass the record for debate audiences set in 2016.

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