December 21, 2014

MU scholar: First presidential debates historically put incumbents at disadvantage (AUDIO)

A University of Missouri professor and scholar of presidential debates says neither President Obama or Governor Mitt Romney dominated their first debate, nor clinched the election. MU professor Mitchell McKinney says Mitt Romney and President Obama’s first debate went as first debates typically go. Neither candidate appeared completely poised and neither delivered any devastating messages … or mistakes. He says the next debate in two weeks should reveal more about both of them.

“This first match-up between President Obama and Gov. Romney produced no ‘knock out’ punches nor any ‘game changing’ gaffes or mistakes,” McKinney said. “Both candidates’ supporters will come away from this first debate proclaiming their candidate as the ‘winner.’ Overall, Mitt Romney’s performance was likely strong enough to silence the critics of his campaign, those from within his own party, and re-energize his supporters. The results of the debate weren’t too surprising. History has shown that incumbent presidents often have lackluster performances in the first debate.”

He points to previous first-debate winners Walter Mondale, Al Gore, John Kerry and Bob Dole. Sitting presidents can often be less prepared than their opponents, because, as he puts it, they’re busy running the country.

McKinney says Obama failed to respond to a number of direct Romney attacks, such as Obama’s energy policy or his inability to reduce the federal deficit … and he says Obama also seemed to pass on an opportunity to take on Mitt Romney over entitlements or to point out Romney’s 47 percent remark.

“Barack Obama’s deliberative approach often seemed halting compared to the more energized Romney,” he says, “who approached the debate with a sense of urgency.”

Also, McKinney says, presidents are often used to being in a commanding position behind the podium and have become unfamiliar with having some as their equal — candidate to candidate — share the podium with them.

As to whether the debates do cause undecided voters to make a choice, McKinney says he doesn’t believe in truly undecided voters. He says debates are aimed at winning over those who are what he calls weak supporters. Either way, he says, the debates won’t determine who wins in November.

He says next Thursday’s vice presidential debate should prove interesting … and notes that four years ago, the Biden-Palin debate got more viewers than the presidential debate for the first time ever.

AUDIO: Jessica Machetta reports (1:10)