MU professor says second Democratic debate to make or break candidates

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COLUMBIA – The second round of the democratic debates starts Tuesday night and it’s many candidates' last chance to make a name for themselves.

Dr. Mitchell McKinney, professor of communications at MU and debate expert, said that things change after this debate. 

“I think for many of them it may be a make or break or last stand,” said McKinney. “We hear candidates pleading for time, begging yelling. We’ve seen things get out of hand at times with candidates talking over each other with candidates insisting they be heard.”

Many of the candidates in the running may not have high-enough polling numbers to qualify for the next debate, scheduled in September.

McKinney said there are three main strategies when candidates debate: attack, insert themselves into the conversation and introduce themselves often.

“If you're a front runner you're likely to get a lot of attacks," McKinney said. "This is a way some candidates with less name recognition strive to stand out."

A lot of attacking is based on who is standing next to who, according to McKinney. He said that's why many of the candidates on the edge are trying to attack the top runners in order to get their name out there for the voters to hear.

“Find a way to create that personal narrative to share some information about yourself that gets the attention of the voters, and creates that interest they want to know more information,” said McKinney.

He said candidates are arranged on the stage based on polling numbers. The candidates with the highest polling numbers, the front runners, will be placed in the middle and those with the lowest numbers on the edge. McKinney said this is why we often see a lot of fighting because the candidates with less name recognition are placed on the end. 

“Candidates will find ways to break in to insert themselves even when the question isn't put to them," McKinney said.

McKinney pointed out candidates are sometimes organized alphabetically but it’s more common to organize them based on polling numbers. He said he believes this is a fair way to organize them.

These primary debates are very important for voters, more so than the general election debate, according to McKinney. This is because voters may not know much about the candidates or their policies this early on in the race. Debates give candidates a chance to share all that information with voters.

“After these two or three rounds of these debates voting decisions start to firm up and you see a great deal of movement towards voting commitment,” said McKinney.

These debates will mostly focus on proposals and policies rather than attacking the candidates’ character or image, McKinney said.

McKinney added he expects former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Corey Booker to be among the candidates to make it to the September debate.