Is Trump Trying to Game the Presidential Debates?
Policy + Politics

Is Trump Trying to Game the Presidential Debates?

© Carlo Allegri / Reuters

It seems that nothing about Election 2016 can escape controversy. Now the presidential debate schedule is being challenged because two of the dates conflict with NFL games. Donald Trump is disputing the schedule, which might deserve a second look based on a quick review of the numbers from previous debates.

Donald Trump, the Republican presidential nominee, Tweeted on Friday:

After examining previous debates, Trump may be on to something. The last presidential debate in 2012 conflicted with an NFL game. For this event, the number of viewers was the lowest out of all three contests (67.2 million, 65.6 million and 59.2 million, respectively).

There were no conflicts with professional football games during any of the presidential debates in 2008; however, the final debate which aired during the MLB playoffs, saw a drop off from the second debate -- 63.2 million to 56.5 million.

Jeffery M. Berry, a political science professor at Tufts University, thinks Trump might be playing his own game. He said in an interview, “The primary purpose of this public condemnation of the presidential debate commission by Trump is an attempt to add leverage. “He believes putting the commission on the defensive will help him in negotiations over format, questioning, amount of participation by the public, what kind of questioning he’ll be confronted with moderators.”

Two out of the three presidential debates this year will be held during NFL games. The billionaire claimed that the NFL sent him a letter regarding the scheduling issue, but NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy denied contacting Trump in a tweet on Saturday night:

“The debates are going to be very highly watched, as debates have been in the past, so if they’re off by two million in terms of the aggregate audience or they’re above previous ones by two million, we’re not talking about a terribly consequential difference,” Berry said. “You’re also in a situation where virtually everybody watching the debate has made up their minds, so [the debates are] not likely to influence the outcome in and of themselves.”

While the majority of voters are expected to watch the presidential debates this election cycle, many may be unaware of the governing body that decides debate dates each election. A non-profit, the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) has been organizing presidential and vice presidential debates since 1987. Private contributions from foundations and corporations sponsor the debates.

There have been controversies surrounding the CPD and presidential contests in the past, including whether third-party candidates should be included. The CPD announced the dates for all three presidential debates in September 2015.

“The CPD started working more than 18 months ago to identify religious and federal holidays, baseball league playoff games, NFL games, and other events in order to select the best nights for the 2016 debates,” the commission said in a statement. “It is impossible to avoid all sporting events, and there have been nights on which debates and games occurred in most election cycles. A debate has never been rescheduled as a result.”