Do the presidential debates usually conflict with the NFL? The debate scheduling controversy, explained

Presidential Debates Schedule 2016 3

The Presidential Debates Schedule 2016 has become yet another point of controversy during this year’s presidential campaign. According to Donald Trump, the Commission on Presidential Debates deliberately scheduled this year’s debates to conflict with NFL games, draw viewers away from the presidential contest, and benefit Hillary Clinton:

Later, in a Washington Post interview, Trump expounded upon his theory, telling the publication “I think it should be on a night where viewers are going to be able to watch. I wouldn’t be surprised if Hillary’s people had something to do with putting them on these evenings because that’s what she did to Bernie Sanders….She was always expected to win the Democratic nomination so I wouldn’t be surprised if they picked those evenings.”

Here’s the Presidential Debates Schedule 2016, with the evenings in question in bold:

Monday, September 26: First presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead NY (The location was originally Wright State University in Dayton OH)
Tuesday, October 4: Vice presidential debate at Longwood University in Farmville VA
Sunday, October 9: Second presidential debate at Washington University in St. Louis MO
Wednesday, October 19: Final presidential debate at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas

Though the reason why low viewership of the debates will help Clinton is unclear, the idea took hold among Trump’s supporters, and both the CPD and the NFL released statements saying that there had been no collusion of any kind. Bolstering the organization’s claims is the fact that the bipartisan CPD announced the debate schedule on September 23rd of last year–four months before the first primaries–and the NFL didn’t release its 2016 schedule until April 14th of this year, several weeks before either Trump or Clinton became their party’s presumptive nominees.

(It might also be worth pointing out that noted fact-checking site PolitiFact rated Trump’s claim “Pants on Fire,” their least-truthy designation…but, given how frequently that happens with Trump, maybe it’s not.)

But what we wanted to know was whether it was unusual for any of the presidential debates to ever go head-to-head with an NFL game. After all, the NFL plays almost all of its games on Sundays, and Monday and Thursday Night Football have become fixtures on the sports calendar, too. Would it be so hard for the commission to avoid those nights?

And, as it turns out, the answer is there’s really no point in avoiding any night, since football isn’t the sole distraction: the Major League Baseball playoff schedule covers nearly every day of the week. It’s almost impossible to avoid both the NFL and the MLB schedules–especially since they aren’t announced in conjunction with the presidential debates. In fact, of the 23 presidential and vice presidential debates held between 1992 and 2012, only two did not conflict with either an NFL game, an MLB game, or, in some instances, both. Those two came in the last two election cycles: the first of the 2012 debates between President Obama and Governor Romney had the night of October 3rd to itself; the second 2008 debate between Senators Obama and John McCain was likewise free of athletic distraction.

And, while it is unusual for two debates to conflict with the NFL’s schedule, it has happened before. The most recent occurrence was also the last time around, in 2012. The record, however, came back in 1992–oddly enough, another good year for outsider candidates–when all three presidential debates headbutted with NFL contests. The vice presidential sparring match was the only CPD event to avoid the clash–but it had to content with Game 6 of the National League Championship Series between the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Atlanta Braves.

A corollary to Donald Trump’s claim might be that those conflicts dragged down the ratings of the presidential debates. While the percentage of viewers who watch the debates is lower now, thanks to the number of entertainment options, than at any point since the tradition began in the 1960s, every presidential and vice presidential debate in the period we studied was also the highest-rated television program that week. (The fewest viewers for any of them was still a whopping 26.6 million for the 1996 vice presidential debate. A vice presidential debate also snagged the largest viewership, when 69.9 million people tuned in for the 2008 event, because Sarah Palin.)

Finally, for the sake of completion, here’s a full list of all of the presidential debate dates from 1992 to 2012, plus the sporting events that aired the same night. (We began with 1992 because the 90s saw an explosion in cable TV subscribers, meaning that’s when it got easier to ignore the major networks who chose to carry the debates and watch something else.) All times are EST.

Sunday, October 11, 1992: Debate: 8-9:30 PM; NFL: Los Angeles @ New Orleans (7:30 PM); MLB: NLCS, Game 5: Atlanta @ Pittsburgh (8:35 PM)
Tuesday, October 13, 1992: Debate: 7-8:30 PM; MLB: NLCS, Game 6: Pittsburgh @ Atlanta (8:35 PM)
Thursday, October 15, 1992: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; NFL: Detroit @ Minnesota (8:00 PM)
Monday, October 19, 1992: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; NFL: Cincinnati @ Pittsburgh (9:00 PM)

Sunday, October 6, 1996: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; NFL: Houston @ Cincinnati (8:00 PM)
Wednesday, October 9, 1996: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: NLCS, Game 1: St. Louis @ Atlanta (8:11 PM)
Wednesday, October 16, 1996: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: NLCS, Game 6: St. Louis @ Atlanta (8:07 PM)

Tuesday, October 3, 2000: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: ALDS Game 1: NY Yankees @ Oakland (8:00 PM)
Thursday, October 5, 2000: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: NLDS, Game 2: NY Mets @ San Francisco (8:05 PM)
Wednesday, October 11, 2000: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: NLCS, Game 1: NY Mets @ St. Louis (8:05 PM)
Tuesday, October 17, 2000: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: ALCS, Game 6: Seattle @ NY Yankees (8:15 PM)

Thursday, September 30, 2004: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: Seven regular-season games started between 7:06 and 7:11 PM
Tuesday, October 5, 2004: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: ALDS, Game 1: Minnesota @ NY Yankees (8:21 PM)
Friday, October 8, 2004: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: ALDS, Game 3: NY Yankees @ Minnesota (7:09 PM)
Wednesday, October 13, 2004: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: ALCS, Game 2: Boston @ NY Yankees (8:19 PM); NLCS, Game 1: Houston @ St. Louis (7:19 PM)

Friday, September 26, 2008: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: Fifteen regular-season games started between 7:08 and 8:36 PM
Thursday, October 2, 2008: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: NLDS, Game 2: Los Angeles Dodgers @ Chicago Cubs (8:37 PM) + Milwaukee @ Philadelphia (6:08 PM)
Tuesday, October 7, 2008: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; No major sports conflict
Wednesday, October 15, 2008: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: NLCS, Game 5: Philadelphia @ Los Angeles Dodgers (8:23 PM)

Wednesday, October 3, 2012: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; No major sports conflict
Thursday, October 11, 2012: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; NFL: Pittsburgh @ Tennessee (8:29 PM); MLB: ALDS Game 4, Baltimore @ NY Yankees (7:37 PM)
Tuesday, October 16, 2012: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; MLB: ALCS Game 3, NY Yankees @ Detroit (8:08 PM)
Monday, October 22, 2012: Debate: 9-10:30 PM; NFL: Detroit @ Chicago (8:40 PM); MLB: NLCS Game 7, St. Louis @ San Francisco (8:07 PM)

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(Photo credits: Presidential Debates Schedule 2016 screencaps via 60 Minutes, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert on CBS; Presidential debate calendars and viewership figures via The Commission on Presidential Debates; NFL schedule information via Pro Football Reference; MLB schedule information from 2004-2012 via Baseball Reference; MLB schedule information from 1992-2000 via Fox Sports)

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