MANCHESTER, N.H. — Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said in a television interview that the Democratic National Committee deliberately scheduled debates at times when viewership would be low in an effort to “protect” the party’s front-runner, Hillary Clinton.
The criticism from Sanders followed the third Democratic debate of the 2016 contest, held here on Saturday night, six days before Christmas and at a time of heightened tensions between the Sanders campaign and the DNC over a data-breach controversy.
Asked whether he thought the timing of Saturday’s debate was intended to hold down viewership, Sanders said: “Yes, I do.”
“I hope a lot of people watched the debate tonight,” the Vermont senator said on WMUR, the local ABC affiliate. “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 timing of the previous Democratic debate, held last month on a Saturday night in Des Moines at a time when the Iowa Hawkeyes were playing football against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
“In Iowa, do you know when the debate was held?” Sanders said. “It was the night of the big football game in Iowa. Do you think that’s a coincidence?”
The DNC has stood by its schedule of six debates, saying it offers ample opportunity for voters to size up the contenders.
On Sunday, DNC spokesman Eric Walker said the Democratic debates had been scheduled in a similar fashion to those of the Republicans: with debates on broadcast television being held on the weekends and those on cable being held during the week.
Jennifer Palmieri, the Clinton campaign’s communications director, said the campaign would welcome a time slot geared toward a larger television audience.
“ABC and CBS are the ones that decided to put the debates on a Saturday night,” Palmieri said, naming the networks that broadcast the previous two debates. “Obviously [Clinton] does really great on these debates. We think that the more people that can see that, the better."
Sanders’s comments — which echoed those made previously by his aides — came amid still-boiling tensions with the party in the aftermath of a high-profile data breach last week.
The Sanders campaign has acknowledged that some of its staffers inappropriately accessed proprietary voter information gathered by Clinton on Wednesday when a DNC contractor mistakenly lowered a firewall in a DNC-controlled database that both campaigns use.
The DNC responded by cutting off Sanders’s access to the database, including information gathered by his own campaign. Hours after Sanders filed a federal lawsuit on Friday claiming that the DNC had overreacted, the party leadership agreed to let his campaign regain access to key voter information.
During Saturday’s debate, Sanders apologized to Clinton, and both Sanders and Clinton said they were eager to move on to a discussion of the real issues facing American families.
But Sanders’s interview, conducted shortly after Saturday night's debate and re-aired Sunday, indicated that raw feelings remain.
“I think everybody understands that Hillary Clinton, who I have a lot of respect for, is the establishment candidate,” Sanders said. “Virtually the entire establishment is supporting her, including the leadership of the DNC.”
Abby Phillip contributed to this story.