After Saturday's debate drew the lowest TV ratings so far this primary season, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is under fire—yet again—for setting a schedule that rival candidates say was designed deliberately to "protect" frontrunner Hillary Clinton.
According to Nielsen data out on Sunday, roughly 6.71 million viewers tuned in to the third 2016 Democratic debate, which aired during prime time the Saturday before Christmas. In comparison, the first and second Democratic debates drew 15.3 million and 8.5 million viewers, respectively, while the three most viewed Republican debates saw 25 million, 23 million, and 18 million viewers.
When asked following Saturday's match up if he thought the DNC scheduled the debate deliberately to minimize viewership, Sen. Bernie Sanders stated, "Yes, I do."
"I hope a lot of people watched the debate tonight," the Vermont senator told New Hampshire's ABC affiliate WMUR. "I think it was a good debate, but I think there is a desire on the part of the DNC to protect Secretary Clinton."
Sanders also pointed to the October 13 debate in Iowa, which he noted was scheduled the same evening as a big Iowa football game. "Do you think that’s a coincidence?" he asked.
"I think everybody understands that Hillary Clinton, who I have a lot of respect for, is the establishment candidate," he added. "Virtually the entire establishment is supporting her—including the leadership of the DNC."
That opinion was shared by Sanders' other rival, former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, who on Sunday said he believes that the party had scheduled the debates intentionally to shield Clinton. "In fact," O'Malley continued, "that's also why, for the first time ever, they have limited the number of debates to just four."
The next Democratic face-off will be held in Charleston, South Carolina on January 17, the Sunday of Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.
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Ironically, as The Nation's John Nichols pointed out on Sunday, the impulse of the DNC to insulate the frontrunner candidate will only result in damaging the party as a whole.
The constrained debate schedule that the DNC has proposed is bad for candidates such as O’Malley, who needs strong debate performances—which he is capable of delivering—to expand his appeal. It’s bad for Sanders, who needs strong debate performances—which he is capable of delivering—in order to narrow the gap on Clinton.
But a restricted debate schedule is also bad for Clinton. She has repeatedly delivered strong debate performances. In fact, a case can be made that those strong performances have cemented her front-runner status in the Democratic race.
"The problem is that most Americans are not seeing Clinton, Sanders, or O’Malley do well in the debates," he adds. "That’s ridiculous, and potentially damaging to all three contenders and to the party’s long-term prospects."
DNC chair Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (Fl.) has faced mounting criticisms this primary season, first for the debate schedule and, most recently, for her controversial decision to temporarily suspend Sanders' campaign access to voter information in response to a software malfunction and alleged data breach.
In an interview with Democracy Now! on Monday, Salon columnist and former White House counselor to President Clinton, Bill Curry, described the DNC as a "dead carcass" of its former self and called for Wasserman Schultz's resignation.
"This is supposed to be a political party. In a healthy society, there would be a democratic process in the Democratic Party by which elected people would be overseeing these issues by making sure there wasn’t just nepotism and insider dealing," Curry said.
He continued: "That the political party itself—which is supposed to be the progressive party—has become mortgaged to a small group of Washington insiders who raise money from large corporate PACs, [and] has become just a dead carcass of what it once was, is the most important piece of information that this contretemps over the data files has emphasized. It is time for progressives in this country to stand up and demand a genuinely democratic process."