How the debate commission selects its dates — causing conflicts with NFL

Trump camp accuses Dems of rigging debate dates
Trump camp accuses Dems of rigging debate dates

Get out a calendar for the months of September and October. Mark down all the football games, all the baseball games, all the federal holidays, all the religious holidays and all the televised awards shows.

Now: Do you envy the presidential debate schedulers?

Donald Trump is publicly challenging the Commission on Presidential Debates, saying they have picked the wrong dates for two of this fall's face-offs, since NFL games fall on the same nights.

The Clinton campaign is defending the commission's choices while noting that it was not involved.

"I think that it is a dangerous thing to start to meddle with the bipartisan process that goes into setting up these debates," Clinton press secretary Brian Fallon said on Fox News Tuesday night.

There's even a dispute about when the commission and the campaigns are going to start discussing the details of the debates. Trump's side says the "negotiations" are starting this week; other people involved in the process say that's not true.

Amid the debate about debates, what most people don't know is that there's a method to what looks like madness.

The fall face-offs are supposed to be evenly spread out across the weeks of late September and early October. They're preferably held on different days of the week, not all clumped together on successive Tuesdays. And they're supposed to avoid the lowest-rated nights of the week, Fridays and Saturdays.

"The schedule is a thousand piece jigsaw puzzle," said one of the people involved in the process.

Normally it plays out in relative obscurity. But this election season is not normal.

Trump said on ABC over the weekend, "I don't think we should be against the NFL."

"I don't know how the dates were picked," he added.

The commission responded with an unusual statement, explaining "how" in detail.

Staffers "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.

The dates were announced in September 2015, during the early stages of the primary election season, well before 2016-2017 NFL game dates were announced.

But the commission knew that football games would conflict with the Monday, September 26 and Sunday, October 9 debate dates, because games are always played on those days of the week.

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

Viewed as one-offs, some of the debate dates don't seem ideal, one of the people involved in the process said. For example: the first debate coincides with "Monday Night Football."

Why not shift it one day later?

"There are plenty of dates that are dead nights that you could do," Trump told The Washington Post on Tuesday.

Because, the organizers say, a change to one of the debate dates affects all of the other dates. The commission tries to set up debates on different nights of the week, to respect the schedules of both shift workers and television networks.

That way, broadcasters only have to pre-empt a brand-new drama or sitcom once. And people who work the late shift on, say, Monday can still watch another debate live on another day of the week.

The needs of TV networks weigh heavily on the debate organizers. "Debates four Wednesdays in a row? The networks would cry bloody murder," one of the sources said.

The organizers also try to spread out the debates — the goal is roughly one per week — to respect the schedules of the candidates and the producers of the events.

In other words: It's a lot more complicated than people think.

Related: Standoff? Commission defends debate schedule amid Trump complaints

New technology has helped to relieve some of the scheduling conflicts, however. Most households can record the debates via a DVR, watch them on demand, or find the video on YouTube.

Even so, Trump supporters are concerned that the NFL games will eat into the ratings for the Trump-Clinton match-up.

And even the NFL acknowledges that it prefers the debates be held on "another night."

Newt Gingrich, one of Trump's top allies, criticized the debate schedule on Fox News Monday night and followed up with a Facebook Live chat on Tuesday.

"Why," he asked on Twitter, "does debate commission, a group of insiders, get to choose when debates are & then get to say it's set in stone?"

As far as the commission is concerned, the debate dates are confirmed. The schedule was announced almost a year ago. Security arrangements and other logistics are already being put into place.

But Trump's senior communications adviser Jason Miller said on Sunday's "Reliable Sources" that the campaign views the dates as negotiable.

He said Trump is concerned about the NFL conflicts because "we want as many people, as many voters, to be participants in and to see the debates as possible."

Miller also said the campaign's talks with the commission "will start this week."

Trump talking points distributed to Republicans on Capitol Hill on Monday echoed this point of view.

"As our campaign enters debate negotiations this week, the Presidential Debate Commission should do the right thing and revise the debate schedule to give the American public the best opportunity to view this democratic tradition," said an email to Hill supporters obtained by CNN from a congressional source.

But two people involved in the debate process said no meetings with the commission are scheduled this week.

Fallon, the Clinton campaign spokesman, said on Fox that "we plan to be" at all three debates, and Clinton expects Trump to be there too.

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