The Democratic National Committee, which organizes the party's primary debates, has faced accusations of scheduling them on dates that will receive poor viewership in an attempt to protect frontrunner Hillary Clinton. DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz has denied these claims. There are other hints Clinton wanted less exposure, including reports that her campaign privately lobbied the DNC for fewer debates.
But when you just look at the debate schedule, it's hard to deny its absurdity — especially when you take a look back at political debates of years past.
Saturday debates? Not common at all.
In lieu of the Democratic debate this Saturday, I analyzed every debate since the 2000 election cycle — that’s 100 debates. Only seven of them took place on Saturday. The most recent was on January 7, 2012, when seven Republican candidates took stage in New Hampshire. Every Saturday debate since 2000 was during primaries, and most of them took place in early January.
TV ratings are generally lower on Friday and Saturday nights, which probably explains why there has never been a general election debate on a Saturday night. There have been five debates on a Friday since the 2000 election cycle, the most recent being the September 26, 2008, debate between John McCain and Barack Obama. And despite it being Obama’s first debate in the general election, just 52.4 million people watched the debate, significantly less than the 63.2 million who watched the next debate on a Tuesday.
Thursday is prime time for debates. Democrats have just one debate on Thursday.
It’s much easier to find viewership data on general election debates, so I looked at viewership data for every election cycle since 1984, via the Commission on Presidential Debates who collected it from Nielsen.
The verdict: Friday debates do poorly. The average viewership is just 49.6 million — the lowest of any day.
On the flip side, Thursday is king when it comes to debates. Of the 100 debates since the 2000 election cycle, 27 of them have been on a Thursday. The three general election debates on Thursdays garnered an average of 66.5 million viewers per event — by far the biggest number.
Thursdays are also the most popular day for vice presidential debates, with four of the eight VP debates since 1984 being set on a Thursday. And on average, those debates do quite well, with an average of 51.55 million people tuning in for the Thursday debates, which is only slightly lower than the average viewership for presidential debates (54 million).
Republicans have scheduled most of their debates on days that historically fare quite well. Democrats have not, with just one Thursday debate. It’s not rocket science, since there’s plenty of data from Nielsen and other companies that help predict when people will be in front of their TV sets. But that also means it’s not rocket science to schedule debates on incredibly inconvenient dates.
The DNC planned debates for times when people don’t want to watch debates
As pointed out by other publications, the Democrats didn’t only plan a debate on Saturday. They also planned a debate six days before Christmas — which, by the way, is also a Saturday. And another one is planned for the Sunday night of Martin Luther King Day weekend, although Democrats are hoping to retain some of the audience from the NFL playoff double-header before the debates. So arguably half of the six debates are on days that are just bad if you want a wide viewership. Wasserman Schultz said early on that she has no plans to add debates, but other Democrats are publicly upset about the scheduling, including Democratic candidate Martin O’Malley and DNC Vice Chair Tulsi Gabbard.