Trump calls debate schedule ‘unacceptable,’ experts say it’s totally normal

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally, Thursday, July 28, 2016, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump’s complaints that the presidential debate schedule was fixed to benefit Hillary Clinton are not supported by evidence, experts say, and holding debates on the same night as a football game or other major sporting event is not uncommon.

"I’d like to have a very large body of people watching the debates, and we’re up against two very important NFL games," the Republican nominee told Sinclair Monday.

"I think the people should be able to see... I would like to see a large audience, a record-setting audience," he added.

Over the weekend, Trump complained that two of the 2016 debates will air against football games, and his campaign chairman claimed his staff would be meeting with the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) to discuss the schedule

"Hillary Clinton wants to be against the NFL,” Trump said in an interview with ABC’s “This Week.” He insisted that he still wants to participate in three debates, though.

On Twitter, Trump said the schedule was “unacceptable” and “same as last time w/ Bernie,” referring to complaints about the Democratic primary debates by Clinton’s opponent, Bernie Sanders.

In the interview, Trump claimed he received a letter from the NFL saying the debate schedule was “ridiculous.” The NFL never sent such a letter. An aide later told CNN that Trump heard the NFL was unhappy with the schedule from a source close to the league.

In a statement refuting Trump’s claims of corruption, the CPD said the dates of sporting events, religious holidays, and federal holidays were considered when choosing nights to hold debates, which were finalized long before Trump and Clinton became their parties’ nominees.

“It is impossible to avoid all sporting events, and there have been nights on which debates and games occurred in most election cycles,” the statement said. “A debate has never been rescheduled as a result.”

Experts on presidential debates said Trump’s allegation that “Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates” is baseless and the commission is unlikely to alter the schedule over his concerns.

“The way the presidential debate commission works is that there are members of both parties and a group of academics,” explained Ben Voth, director of debate at Southern Methodist University.

“There’s no input from the campaigns at all,” said Aaron Kall, director of debate at the University of Michigan. The CPD is bipartisan and no representatives of either campaign were involved in its planning efforts.

Kall said games do not appear to have negatively impacted ratings in the past, and interest in the Trump-Clinton faceoff is likely much higher than in other recent elections. The ratings for NFL games pale in comparison to the numbers expected for the first debate.

“The viewership for the debate is going to much outdraw these sporting events,” he said.

In every election cycle for the last twenty years, at least one debate has been set for either the day of a major sporting event or a weekend night.

• 2012: The third debate was held on a Monday, competing with Monday Night Football and a baseball playoff game, and the first and second debates were also held on nights of football or baseball games.

• 2008: The first debate aired on a Friday night and the third competed with a National League Championship Series game.

• 2004: The second debate took place on a Friday and the third was up against an American League Championship Series game.

• 2000: All three debates aired against baseball playoff games.

• 1996: The first debate was scheduled for a Sunday.

The third 2012 debate was the lowest rated of that campaign, but with 59.2 million viewers, it still received more viewers than the final debate in 2008.

Drawing in a huge audience would be in Trump’s interest if he performs well.

“The debates are essential,” Kall said, adding that the first one “could be one of the biggest political moments in recent memory.”

Both candidates have gotten a bump out of their conventions and the race is now entering a lull where no major events are scheduled that could shake up the race until the debates. Although Clinton and Sanders debated one-on-one several times, audiences have never seen Trump in a head-to-head debate.

“There’s going to be a lot of interest built up,” Kall said.

Also giving weight to this year’s debates is the fact that many voters are currently opposed to both Clinton and Trump.

“You’ve got a situation with an unusually large population of reticent voters,” Voth said. Since Trump does not have an extensive track record in politics, the debates will give those viewers a clearer sense of where he stands on many issues.

The debate schedule was set last September. The NFL schedule was released in April. Voth suggested Trump may be bringing this up now because he only officially became the nominee two weeks ago, but he said the timing is odd.

According to Kall, this may be an attempt to shift the media's attention away from other negative stories about Trump and positive stories about Clinton's convention.

“The timing is certainly questionable, but Trump always tries to drive the media cycle,” he said.

However, challenging the debate schedule also fits with the themes of Trump’s campaign and his insistence that the system is “rigged.” Sanders made similar claims about the primaries.

“This narrative is meant to try to drive the Bernie Sanders supporters into the hold of the Trump campaign,” Kall said.

Many have presumed that the initial Democratic primary debate schedule, which only included six debates with some held on holiday weekends, was engineered by the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to benefit Clinton. Unlike the general election, the primary debates were planned by the Democratic Party, but the DNC has repeatedly denied tipping the scales for Clinton.

In response to an article criticizing the Democratic debate schedule in December, DNC official TJ Helmstetter tweeted that the broadcast networks insisted on weekend dates for debates they aired, while the cable networks wanted their debates on weekdays. Broadcast network debates for Republicans were also held on weekends.

The outcry over the limited debates and pressure from the campaigns and voters eventually led the DNC to schedule several additional debates on weeknights, but it is unclear if that had an effect on the outcome of the race.

“It probably didn’t help the Sanders campaign but at the same time I don’t think if the schedule was different it would have made a difference,” Kall said.

Trump’s campaign has claimed that hacked DNC emails support the contention that the party rigged the primary debates for Clinton. Although a few emails do discuss a planned Fox News debate in May that was canceled after Clinton refused to attend, nothing in the emails directly addresses scheduling or suggests that Clinton’s campaign had influence over it.

While Trump has said he still wants three debates, Kall said these complaints could be a first step toward backing out of at least one of them.

“I could certainly see a scenario where there aren’t any debates,” he said.

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