MU professor reaches international recognition for his knowledge of political debates

Director of MU’s Political Communications Institute Mitchell McKinney: “I’ve been a political junkie my whole life.”

More than 84 million Americans watched the first presidential debate, according to Nielsen.

Mitchell McKinney watched the people watching it.

McKinney, the director of MU’s Political Communications Institute, is internationally recognized for his work studying political debates. McKinney provides frequent commentary for news outlets such as NPR, The New York Times, CNN, and The Washington Post. During the 2012 election cycle, he served as the principal political debate analyst for NPR News and USA Today, and was quoted by more than 800 news outlets.

“I’ve been a political junkie my whole life,” McKinney said. “When I was an undergrad, I did student government and then I did internships in Washington, DC. So when I was crafting my research agenda as a faculty member, in grad school, I was drawn to political campaigns and presidential campaigns.”

As a graduate student, McKinney began to study “one of the key moments” of the presidential campaign — the presidential debate.

He studied speech communication and government at Western Kentucky University before receiving his master’s degree in organizational and political communications from the University of North Carolina. McKinney earned his doctoral degree in political and organizational communication from the University of Kansas before coming to MU 16 years ago.

In this election cycle, McKinney and his colleagues are analyzing the relationship between social media and and college students’ political participation.

“We’re analyzing how these young voters — the millennials — are using social media to engage in the debates,” McKinney said. “I call it ‘social watching.’”

Specifically, the team is studying the usage of Twitter by politically aware millennials.

“We’re looking at what is the nature of the second screen activity, of the tweeting,” said McKinney. “Is it just attacking the candidates that you don’t support? Is it snark? Cynicism? Humor? We’re interested to find out what it is when folks are engaged in a presidential debates, and they’re tweeting out their comments, what are they saying? That’s sort of a massive project.”

For the first debate, McKinney and his colleagues surveyed more than 400 college students across the country before and after their viewing of the debate. The survey results indicated a more than 10 percent increase in the likelihood that those students surveyed will vote for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, according to the statement released by the study’s directors through the MU News Bureau.

McKinney and his team followed a similar procedure for the second debate. Four hundred college students were surveyed before and after the town hall-style debate. The researchers noted an increase of 6 percent in students’ likelihood to vote for Clinton following the second debate, according to the statement released following the completion of their second study.

Political communications assistant professor Benjamin Warner is working with McKinney on these studies.

“He’s been a mentor to me since I arrived, and a tremendous collaborator and a tremendous colleague,” Warner said. “He is incredibly professional. He is incredibly organized. He’s really funny, and he’s really impressive.”

The team will continue data collection with the third and final presidential debate on Oct. 19.

“This has been quite an unusual election cycle,” McKinney said. There’s a lot of unknowns. In some ways for studying these things, it makes it very exciting in the sense that we don’t know what to predict. We don’t know what to expect.”

Edited by Kyra Haas |

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