First fall presidential debate is pivotal in race to White House, expert says

MU presidential debate expert is available for media commentary on Sept. 29 debate

September 21, 2020
Eric Stann, 573-882-3346,
Mitchell S. McKinney, 573-489-9709,

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.

picture of Mitchell S. McKinney

Mitchell S. McKinney

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, said presidential debate expert Mitchell S. McKinney, director of the Political Communication Institute at the University of Missouri.

McKinney’s experience includes serving as a staff member in both the U.S. Senate and the White House, consulting 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.

Based on his previous analysis, 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,” said McKinney, a professor of political communication in MU’s College of Arts and Science. “Once again, the conditions are present for the upcoming debates to be influential in determining the outcome of the 2020 election.”

McKinney has 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.

“With much of our presidential campaigning curtailed due to concerns and restrictions created by the COVID-19 pandemic, the public has not seen the usual level of campaigning by the candidates and will be eager to see the presidential contenders in these face-to-face matchups,” he said.

Editor’s Note: To view McKinney’s bio, please click here.

To arrange an interview with Professor McKinney, please contact Eric Stann at 573-882-3346 or

The University of Missouri has a VideoLink ReadyCam TV interview studio. ReadyCam is capable of transmitting broadcast-quality standard-definition and high-definition video directly to all news media organizations around the world.

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