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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump Misfires on Debate Claim

Donald Trump made the baseless accusation that the Hillary Clinton campaign was plotting to schedule two of three presidential debates on nights with NFL football games in order to limit viewership. The dates were set by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates long before either Trump or Clinton secured their parties’ presidential nominations, and before the National Football League even announced its 2016 schedule.

Trump got the ball rolling with a July 29 tweet that began, “As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates so 2 are up against major NFL games … Unacceptable!”

In an interview with ABC News on July 29, which aired on ABC’s “This Week” on July 31, Trump was asked by host George Stephanopoulos about that debate schedule.

Trump, July 29: Well, I tell you what I don’t like, it’s against two NFL games. I got a letter from the NFL saying this is ridiculous, why are the debates against — because the NFL doesn’t want to go against the debates because the debates are going to be pretty massive, from what I understand …

Stephanopoulos: So, you don’t like the dates that are out there.

Trump: Well, I don’t like dates against — you know, Hillary Clinton wants to be against the NFL. She doesn’t maybe like she did with Bernie Sanders where they were on Saturday nights when nobody’s home.

Trump supporter Newt Gingrich added his view via Twitter on July 31: “Scheduling 2 out of 3 presidential debates opposite NFLGames makes me think the commission is rigged to help hide Hillary from the voters.”

And on NBC’s “Meet the Press” on July 31, Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort bemoaned the debate conflicts with NFL games and said, “But we’re not going to fall ploy to … the Hillary Clinton ploy that she did against Bernie Sanders of trying to have the lowest viewing audience. We want the biggest.”

Again, the dates and sites for the presidential debates were set by the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, or CPD, which has sponsored all of the debates in the last seven presidential elections. It operates independently of the political campaigns.

On Sept. 23, 2015, the CPD announced the dates of all three presidential debates: Monday, Sept. 26; Sunday, Oct. 9; and Wednesday, Oct. 19. The NFL didn’t release its schedule until more than six months after the CPD set its debate dates, but the NFL typically holds games on Sunday and Monday nights. As it happens, two of those debates are scheduled for nights with NFL games — a Monday, Sept. 26 game between the New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons and a Sunday, Oct. 9 game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers.

It is unusual in recent elections to have a majority of the debates on the same night as NFL games. In 2012, one of the three debates was held on a Monday night, and went up against a “Monday Night Football” game between the Detroit Lions and Chicago Bears.

But in 2008, 2004 and 2000, none of the three presidential debates each year fell on an NFL game night.

However, there were plenty of conflicts in all of those years with Major League Baseball playoff games. In 2012 and 2004, two of the three debates were held on the same night as baseball playoff games; in 2008, one of the debates was held on the same night as a baseball playoff game; and in 2000, all three debates were held on the same night as baseball playoff games.

Steve Kornacki, a political consultant for MSNBC, noted that in a 1996 debate, Bob Dole began by giving viewers an update of the score of the National League Championship Series game between the Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.

In response to criticism from the Trump camp, the CPD released a statement defending its decision, and noting the difficulty of trying to schedule debates on nights that do not conflict with professional baseball or football games.

“The Commission on Presidential Debates (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 statement reads. “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.

“As a point of reference, in a four-year period, there are four general election debates (three presidential and one vice presidential) and approximately 1000 NFL games,” the statement says.

We should note as well that Trump’s claim that he “got a letter from the NFL” calling the debate schedule “ridiculous” was denied by the NFL. “While we’d obviously wish the Debate Commission could find another night, we did not send a letter to Mr Trump,” a spokesman for the NFL said. In an addendum to his interview with Trump, Stephanopoulos noted that “the Trump team responded to that overnight, saying that Trump was made aware of conflicting dates by a source close to the league.”