Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton are scheduled to have three presidential debates as the election heads into September and October.
But first, Trump wants to debate when to debate.
Trump has already started claiming that Clinton and the Democrats "are trying to rig the debates" — because two of the matchups will conflict with NFL games. The first debate, on September 26, coincides with a game between the Atlanta Falcons and New Orleans Saints. The third debate, on October 9, is on the same day as a game between the New York Giants and the Green Bay Packers:
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!— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 30, 2016
The implication, presumably, is that Clinton wanted the debates scheduled on a night when no one was watching.
There are a couple of huge problems with Trump’s complaints: First, neither candidate nor political party had anything to do with this schedule. The presidential debates are set by the independent Commission on Presidential Debates a year in advance — in fact, this year’s schedule was set on September 23, 2015, seven months before the NFL released its schedule.
What’s more, there are all sorts of sporting events throughout September and October — including baseball playoff games. So it’s tough to find dates without any sort of conflict.
Note that the Commission on Presidential Debates has already said that it is not planning to change the schedule: "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."
Nevertheless, Trump continues to push the issue. In a recent interview with the Washington Post, he said he wants the debates to be rescheduled for nights without football. He also wants a say in who moderates the debates:
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. In all fairness, even if. September, she was always going to be the Democratic nominee so there was no negotiating even back then.… She was always expected to win the Democratic nomination so I wouldn’t be surprised if they picked those evenings.
So what’s Trump actually trying to accomplish by pushing this controversy? Here are a few possibilities.
1) Trump’s complaints about the debate are really just an excuse to attack Clinton
One possibility is that Trump isn’t really trying to change the debate schedule — he’s just attacking Clinton.
Candidates have often used debates as an excuse to attack their opponents. When George H.W. Bush was running for reelection in 1992, Bill Clinton attacked him as "Chicken George" for refusing to debate. Men in chicken costumes would attend Bush’s campaign rallies, the New York Times reported.
It’s possible Trump is trying a similar strategy here, claiming that Clinton is "afraid" to debate him in front of the masses. It dovetails with his criticisms of Clinton for avoiding the public by not holding press conferences as often as he does. And it jibes with his portrait of Clinton as an out-of-touch elite "rigging" the system.
His argument potentially "plays into his broader message as an outsider," Josh Scacco, a Purdue University political science professor, told me.
Trump wouldn’t be alone in trying this. Bernie Sanders’s campaign took a similar line against Hillary Clinton in the primaries, accusing her of ducking debates and dragging out negotiations.
2) Trump is giving himself an out if he loses the debate — or laying the groundwork to skip
Another possibility is that Trump is worried about losing the debates — and this gives him an out if he does. He can just say the debates were "rigged" from the start. As Scacco puts it, "Trump is trying to lower expectations of his debate performance."
This would be a familiar tactic for Trump. After he lost the Iowa caucus, he claimed that Ted Cruz "stole" the election there. Similarly, during a GOP primary debate, Megyn Kelly asked him a tough question about his behavior toward women, which he called biased and unfair, claiming the media had it out against him. That later gave him an excuse to skip the second Fox News debate altogether — an unprecedented move in the primary.
As my colleague Dara Lind has written, Donald Trump often resorts to the "rigged" excuse. After all, he likes to see himself as a winner. So if he’s not winning, it must be someone else’s fault. That explains why he’s been talking a lot lately about how this election is rigged:
Trump seems to be looking for scapegoats for his own loss months before the first votes are even counted: the Democrats, the debate commission, his own voters, even local fire marshals. Taken altogether, it looks less like the efforts of someone preparing to mount a post-election challenge (which, after all, takes a lot of work) than the efforts of someone trying to make sure he emerges from a loss unscathed.
Some commentators have even wondered if Trump might be laying the groundwork to skip the debate once more. That said, Scacco thinks this is unlikely: "The Trump campaign is built around free media attention — to skip the debates would contradict his main communication strategy to this point."
Jack Citrin, a political scientist at the University of California Berkeley, is also skeptical that Trump would be afraid of debating Clinton altogether: "[He] sees himself as a winner in that context based on the Republican events."
3) Trump just wants attention, and he doesn’t care how he gets it
The third possibility is that this is just Trump working the news cycle, as he always does. As my colleague Lind has written, Trump "truly does believe that ‘all publicity is good publicity.’ It’s how he’s conducted his entire career."
"Ultimately this is just another way to get attention for himself, divert attention from his latest gaffe, and do so in a way that is consistent with his message that things that don’t go his way are rigged against him," Michael Wagner, a political communications professor at the University of Wisconsin Madison, argues.
In short, this is Trump being Trump, latching onto the little things, making wild, unsubstantiated accusations, all while staying on message.
"He appears to be perfectly willing to erode decades of well-earned faith in public institutions for his own purposes," Wagner says. "His complaints about the debates are part and parcel of a strategy communicating that 'everything that I don’t like is evidence of a rigged, dishonest system,’ when, of course, it isn’t."