Election 2016: Mitchell McKinney, MU Expert, Says First GOP Debate Was Helpful

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On Thursday, August 6, the first Republican presidential primary debate was held in Cleveland, Ohio. Now, Mitchell S. McKinney, professor of political communication at the University of Missouri, and a nationally and internationally recognized scholar of presidential debates, offers his remarks on the debate.

"For the most part, this first debate of the leading Republican candidates was a useful discussion of a number of significant campaign issues that demonstrated key differences among the contenders on a range of important topics," McKinney said. "The Fox News team handled the large field of candidates very well and didn't shy away from tough questioning of the candidates."

McKinney suggests that one of the winners of the Republican debate was Democratic frontrunner Hilary Clinton.

"Perhaps one of the winners of tonight's debate was Hillary Rodham Clinton. While a few of the candidates made passing references to the Democratic frontrunner, several of these attacks were lighthearted in nature. Interestingly, the leading Republican candidates were much more aggressive in taking on the incumbent president than their attacks directed toward the Democratic frontrunner," McKinney said. "The treatment of Clinton in the main debate was in stark contrast to the many more pointed attacks she received in the second-tier candidate debate that took place earlier in the afternoon, particularly the 'no-holds-barred' approach to Clinton by Carly Fiorina whose earlier performance earned her a cameo appearance—along with Rick Perry—in the main show."

Donald Trump, the often divisive Republican frontrunner, was expected to "steal the show." However, McKinney contends that his performance was somewhat muted.

"This debate did not become the 'Donald Trump show' as many had predicted and even feared," McKinney said. "In fact, on several occasions the Fox panelists encouraged the candidates to take on Mr. Trump; yet repeatedly Trump's opponents declined to do so. Because of this apparent unwillingness to attack Mr. Trump, he didn't receive much response time and therefore we heard from nearly all the candidates equally without Donald Trump monopolizing the debate.

For his performance, Mr. Trump demonstrated appropriate fury and rage in his responses – perhaps the only exception was his calling all political leaders in the United States 'stupid,' but otherwise he projected an aggressiveness that many voters may find appealing. Trump did seem more concerned with the viewers and voters in the wider public audience and not the Republican party faithful that made up the debate hall crowd. Finally, Mr. Trump didn't seem to shy away from his previous positions and bold pronouncements; he appeared to survive this first debate with his frontrunner status intact."

McKinney also critiqued Jeb Bush's performance.

"As the principal contender to Mr. Trump for reigning frontrunner status, Jeb Bush's debate performance this evening was rather 'low key' at times, almost too relaxed to the point of being diminished by the much more aggressive Trump who was standing next to Bush," McKinney said. "While Gov. Bush's strategy may be to highlight a thoughtful and reasoned demeanor compared to the brasher and boastful Trump, voters may desire to see a more energetic and aggressive Jeb Bush in future debates."

McKinney also is director of the Political Communication Institute at MU (http://pci.missouri.edu). His research has focused particular attention on presidential primary debates, with his analysis indicating 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. His research concluded candidates approach their primary debate performances much differently than candidates engaged in general-election debates. In his research, McKinney has found that viewers actually find these early debate encounters much more useful than those presidential debates that occur toward the end of a long campaign.


Mitchell McKinney, professor of political communication at the University of Missouri, and a nationally and internationally recognized scholar of presidential debates, has written his post-mortem on last night's debate and its participants and offers his unique views in the attached critique.

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