Sanders battle with DNC overshadows Dem debate

Sanders battle with DNC overshadows Dem debate
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A nasty fight between Bernie SandersBernie SandersParliamentarian deals setback to GOP repeal bill OPINION | Hey Dems, Russia won't define 2018, so why not fix your party's problems instead? OPINION | They told us to abandon ObamaCare — then came the resistance MORE and the Democratic National Committee threatens to overshadow the already obscure Democratic presidential debate scheduled for Saturday night. 

Despite the media attention on Friday over Sanders’s lawsuit against the DNC, the debate is likely to still be an afterthought to potential viewers on the Saturday night before Christmas, running against an NFL game and the opening weekend of the new "Star Wars" movie. 

If anything, interest in the Sanders spat with the Democratic National Committee will overtake interest in the debate, Democrats say. 

Sanders, struggling to overtake Hillary Clinton in the contest, sued the DNC for freezing access to vital campaign data held by the Democratic organization. The DNC took that step after determining that a Sanders staffer inappropriately accessed the Clinton campaign's data.   

Democrats are skeptical Sanders’s fight with the DNC fight will dominate the debate discussion or have a long-term effect, but say it will add to the noise that could drown out one of the party’s few debates of the cycle. 

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“It will minimize the impact of the debate even after it has already been minimized because it’s the day after the big movie premiere of the year, six days before Christmas,” said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. 

“There wasn’t going to be much of a story about the debate. Now we’ve got a story and it is not a good one.” 

The debates themselves have been cast by Clinton’s rivals as part of what they say is a DNC protection plan to limit the chances that the underdog candidate will have to knock Clinton off her game.  

Saturday’s 8 p.m. event on ABC will mark the party’s second weekend debate; the Republicans have held all debates during weekday prime time. 

The Democrats’ previous Saturday debate, hosted by CBS in October, drew 8.5 million viewers. That’s compared to a party record of 15.3 million viewers during its only weekday prime-time debate, on CNN. 

If the inopportune timing hurts Saturday’s ratings even more, the viewership could draw closer to last week’s GOP undercard debate, which scored 5.7 million people. 

“This weekend of all weekends, it’s a 10th choice even if you are interested in watching,” said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University communications professor. 

“If the point is to make the debate so that as many citizens and potential voters can see it, if that wasn’t deliberately done, somebody wasn’t thinking very hard. And they think pretty hard about that kind of stuff.” 

The party’s next debate, the last before the official start of primary season, will take place on a Sunday night in January during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, alongside an NFL playoff game. 

The next weekday debate won’t take place until Feb. 11, after the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary. It will be the second to last debate on the calendar, with the last one occurring on March 9. While the primary may be sewn up earlier, the Democratic presidential primaries run through June.  

Simon Rosenberg, president of the liberal think tank New Democrat Network, noted that with current averages, the 12 Republican debates will reach about 200 million viewers compared to about 75 million for the six Democratic events. 

“The Republicans will, by design this cycle, have reached about three times as many people as the Democratic debates,” he said.

“That’s a gap that’s worth tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions of dollars of paid advertising.” 

Sanders adviser Tad Devine declined to rehash the campaign’s criticisms of the debate schedule when reached by The Hill on Thursday, before the controversy with the DNC bubbled over. He went as far as to praise the “reception” that the campaign received from “Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the organized leadership of the Democratic National Committee.” 

On Friday, campaign manager Jeff Weaver sang a different tune in light of the campaign data incident. 

“Individual members of the DNC can support Hillary Clinton in any way they want, but they are not going to sabotage our campaign,” he said. 

“I don’t know the motivation of every single person at the DNC, but you look at the pattern of conduct, we’ve obviously had concerns about the Saturday night debate schedule and its impact on the ability of campaigns to get their message out.” 

Sean Savett, a spokesman for White House contender Martin O’Malley, shared those concerns about the debate process in a statement to The Hill that called the debate schedule “party malpractice.”  

DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) defended the schedule Thursday on CNN by noting that all of the RNC’s two broadcast network debates are scheduled for a Saturday night as well.  

“Those schedules are quiet a bit less flexible,” she said of working with the broadcast networks that would have to preempt major programming to fit in a debate in prime time. 

“Through our candidate forums and our debates, we are garnering large audiences and our candidates are also out on the campaign trail making sure that we can spread our message and draw a contrast.” 

One Democratic strategist downplayed the comparisons between the draw on the Democratic side and the Republican side.

“When the networks chose to have the Democratic debates, they were interested in getting ratings,” the strategist said. 

“We’re reaching network viewers, and that’s a different set of voters, voters that may not be tuned in to the around-the-clock coverage on the cable networks. ... They’ve got 17 candidates trying to out-crazy each other and that makes for better TV than our adult conversations.” 

Despite the small audience expected for Saturday, debate experts noted that social media and journalists will play a large role in disseminating interesting moments from the debate, ensuring that those choice moments will have a life outside of actual viewers. 

“If only 20,000 people are watching when it airs and if one of those candidates really start catching fire, we will hear about it and we will see it in a way much more efficient,” Thompson, the Syracuse professor, said. 

But that said, the NDN’s Rosenberg said he doesn’t understand the party’s decision to keep the debate on Saturday even after seeing the rating disparity between the two parties’ debates. 

“This debate should have been moved, but it wasn’t.”