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October 2012

Behind the Scenes at a Presidential Debate

Most Americans watched the third and final presidential debate between President Barack Obama and Governor Mitt Romney on TV. But Carnegie Mellon University’s Kiron Skinner had a much better seat.

Skinner, associate professor of social and decision sciences, director of CMU’s Center for International Relations and Politics and the university’s national security policy adviser, had a seat in the Romney spin room – an area where the media has access to campaign representatives after a debate. Also joining Skinner in the spin room were Senator John McCain and his wife Cindy, Senator Marco Rubio and Florida’s Lieutenant Governor Jennifer Carroll, among others.

“I behaved as a scholar,” said Skinner, a renowned foreign policy expert. “I was soaking in the environment and listening to people craft their arguments. I also read and reflected on the state of U.S. foreign policy and, as a historian, on the role of the U.S. in the world over history.”

Attending her first presidential debate caused Skinner to think more deeply about her own research – on international relations and political strategy – and how it fits into the national conversation.

“The debate provided a rare opportunity for scholarship to meet public policy,” she said. “Scholars are becoming more involved in national politics and public policy. But, for our nation to remain a great power, to be truly energy independent and to balance our broad commitment in the Middle East and Indo-Pacific region, we need an interdisciplinary toolkit available to policy makers from which they can draw.”

She continued, “It’s not that public policy leaders have to be proficient in all of the disciplines – from the social sciences and humanities to computer science, business, engineering and others. Scholars, including myself and my colleagues at Carnegie Mellon and across the nation in my field, need to translate our scientific research into language that policy leaders can understand.”

During the debate, Skinner watched the candidates intently – and watched the others in the spin room watching the debate.

“This election is about jobs and the future of America, but foreign policy is playing a special role because of what happened in Benghazi,” she said. “The killing of four Americans and the surrounding chaos suggests that we – as a nation – do not have a consensus on what type of conflict we are in and who the principal adversaries are. It’s the opposite of the Cold War situation when there was national agreement over who and what we were up against.”

Skinner feels that presidential debates are a crucial part of the democratic process.

“We only have one nationally elected official and one opportunity to vote for one person to lead our country,” she said. “Everything a candidate does in the public realm matters, but debates give voters a chance to see the candidates under pressure. They can hear how they articulate complex problems, get a sense of their grasp of the issues and form an impression about the candidates’ personalities, characteristics and perspectives on world views.”

Following the debate, Skinner gave an interview to Al Jazeera English reinforcing and explaining Romney’s foreign policy positions. Watch the interview at

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Other sources of Carnegie Mellon news include the university news service website and the Carnegie Mellon Today magazine.

Contact Shilo Rea, Director of Public Relations at or (412) 268-6094.


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