The day after Hillary Clinton wrapped up the Democratic nomination for president, Republican rival Donald Trump was already accusing her of "rigging" the presidential debates to coincide with NFL games in the fall.
"As usual, Hillary & the Dems are trying to rig the debates so 2 are up against major NFL games. Same as last time w/ Bernie. Unacceptable!" Trump tweeted.
Campaign chairman Paul Manafort echoed the complaint on NBC’s Meet the Press.
"The DNC hack showed you that the Clinton campaign was working to schedule debates against (Bernie) Sanders, which have the least possible viewing audience. Mr. Trump’s saying, Look we want the maximum viewing audience," Manafort said. "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."
It is well-established that the Democrats held fewer primary debates on nights with a lighter audience and with more popular programming.
However, Manafort’s statement overplays what’s in the DNC emails and ignores how presidential primary and general election debates are actually set.
There is no evidence in leaked DNC emails that the Clinton campaign lobbied for weekend dates or fewer debates in her primary fight against Sanders. There is also no evidence that the Clinton campaign had any hand in the setting the debates between Trump and Clinton.
A bipartisan commission released the chosen dates 11 months before Clinton and Trump secured the party’s nomination.
Debating the Democratic debates
We asked the Trump campaign for specific emails released by WikiLeaks that prove Manafort’s point about the Clinton campaign colluding to minimize debate viewership, but we didn’t hear back. Our own search turned up no smoking emails.
The party announced it would host six debates in May 2015, and released in August dates for the first four square-offs — three of which fell on weekends. Many criticized the DNC for the paucity and poor timing of these debates, and experts we spoke with agreed that the schedule benefitted Clinton.
Not only, however, do zero emails in the WikiLeaks DNC archive involve anything about the scheduling of these planned debates. There is also no proof of the Clinton campaign having any say over the dates. In most exchanges, DNC staffers are discussing logistics (i.e. asking MSNBC if anchor Chris Matthews would be willing to meet with donors and requesting expense invoices) or media coverage and backlash.
Overall, there’s no evidence of intent to harm Sanders with the debates or collusion between the Clinton camp and the DNC, said Kathleen Jamieson, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who wrote the book Presidential Debates: The Challenge of Creating an Informed Electorate.
Aaron Kall, the director of debate at the University of Michigan, commended the DNC for adding three more debates after a series of primary wins for Sanders in early 2016. He said the changed philosophy may be the best evidence that the DNC was listening to Democratic voters.
A scuttled Fox debate
Manafort may have been alluding to a few email threads that detail negotiations over a fourth Fox News debate in California that ultimately didn’t happen. While some backs-and-forth indicate a lack of enthusiasm, they do not show the DNC or the Clinton actively trying to schedule the debate to hurt Sanders.
Former DNC chair Wasserman Schultz wasn’t thrilled about the idea at first, but her objection seemed to be Fox News hosting, not the idea of an extra debate in general.
"Boy, they (Fox News) are laying it on thick," she wrote May 13. "The RNC would never do an MSNBC debate for the same reason that we shouldn't do this one."
Negotiations nonetheless continued as the Clinton campaign and DNC seemed to be at odds with the Sanders campaign over whether the debate would be sanctioned by the party (which would give the DNC more control).
Fox eventually sent invites to both camps with the DNC’s blessing, and Sanders campaign spokesman Michael Briggs emailed the DNC May 18 notifying them that Sanders had accepted the invite. "Lol," responded DNC communications director Luis Miranda.
Wasserman Schultz told her staffers that the Clinton declined to "take the bait" May 19, and the Clinton campaign declined Fox’s invite a few days later, squashing the possibility of a fourth debate.
Wasserman Schultz addressed the criticism lobbed at her for the debates specifically in an May 18 email, pushing back on the notion she "put them on weekends so people wouldn’t see them" and arguing that the DNC worked with the networks and campaigns on the dates.
"Debates were a success! And when he (Sanders) wanted more, she went to bat with the Clinton campaign and got more debates," Wasserman Schultz wrote.
General confusion, not collusion
Manafort’s second charge that Clinton had something to do with putting two general election debates on nights with football games is less credible.
The Commission on Presidential Debates is a bipartisan organization that works independently of the campaigns. As our friends at the Washington Post Fact-Checker pointed out, the commission released its schedule in September 2015, long before Trump and Clinton became party nominees and long before the NFL released its schedule in April 2016.
"The Commission on Presidential Debates 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 debate. 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," the commission said in a statement.
The Trump campaign’s charges are "absolutely baseless," said Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University who wrote Presidential Debates: Fifty Years of High-Risk TV.
"There is no rigging, and nothing different about this year's schedule from previous cycles," Schroeder told us.
Kall of the University of Michigan said the commission does not consult the campaigns during the planning process. "They don’t talk to any of the campaigns. They come up with a schedule that works with the hosts and they also have to juggle religious holidays."
Given that there are 256 NFL games from early September to December, Kall said, it would be near impossible to schedule a debate that wasn’t on a weekend or holiday and didn’t coincide with a game. Plus, it’s happened before, Jamieson reminded us.
Trump and Clinton’s sparring will likely draw even bigger audiences considering Trump’s ability to command press and public attention and Clinton’s decades-long tenure in the political limelight. Even with the NFL conflicts, Kall told us he expects at least 70 million if not 100 million viewers.
In other words, Trump will probably get his maximum viewing audience.
Manafort said, "The DNC hack showed you that the Clinton campaign was working to schedule debates against Sanders" and the Clinton campaign is continuing this "ploy" against Trump.
Experts agree the Democratic primary debate schedule was more advantageous to Clinton than Sanders, but there is no evidence in the DNC emails that show Clinton conspired to make this happen.
As for the notion that Clinton rigged the presidential debate schedule ahead of the general election, experts told us it’s pretty absurd. The commission that plans the debates released its schedule six months before the NFL released theirs, and almost a year before Clinton and Trump became the Democratic and Republican nominees.
We rate Manafort’s claim False.