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Do NFL games really take eyeballs off presidential debates?

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are scheduled to debate Sept. 26, but Trump is worried that Drew Brees and “Monday Night Football” will come between them and high ratings. (Clinton photo by Jim Young/Reuters; Brees photo by David Richard/AP; Trump photo by Morry Gash/AP)
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You may have heard that ratings-conscious Donald Trump is miffed that two of the three general election presidential debates are scheduled on the same autumn nights as prime-time NFL games.

The first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton on Sept. 26 will compete against ESPN's "Monday Night Football" telecast of the New Orleans Saints vs. Atlanta Falcons. The second, on Oct. 4, is up against NBC's "Football Night in America" broadcast of the New York Giants vs. Green Bay Packers.

"I'm not thrilled with that," Trump said Sunday on ABC's "This Week." He also said the NFL sent him a letter expressing its own displeasure with the conflicts; the league disputed that claim but did issue a statement saying it would "prefer the debates on a different night than scheduled games."

For its part, the bipartisan Commission on Presidential Debates, which set the dates in September 2015, said it wouldn't move the events now, noting that alternative dates could create new conflicts with holidays, Major League Baseball playoff games and other sporting events. (Think you can find better dates? Go ahead. Try it.)

Trump's former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said on CNN on Monday that he believes the Republican presidential nominee will ultimately succeed in pressuring the commission to reschedule.

"Donald Trump is going to get the debate schedule changed, regardless of when those debates were set," Lewandowski said confidently.

Supposing the commission holds firm, however, the question is this: Should Trump really be worried about the NFL eating into debate ratings? Considering how insanely popular NFL telecasts are — they perennially dominate lists of the most-watched TV shows — you would think the answer is clearly yes. But the historical evidence isn't so conclusive.

Presidential debates have competed with prime-time NFL games three times since 1992, always against "Monday Night Football." Among 17 total debates, these three rank third, sixth and eighth in viewership — all in the top half.

As you can see, interest in the debates varies widely from one election cycle to the next, so it is also worth examining how debates that clashed with football rated in comparison to others in the same years. In 1992, the football debate drew the second-biggest audience out of three; it was first of three in 2004 and third of three in 2012. There is no pattern, in other words.

Keep in mind that in 1992 and 2004, "Monday Night Football" aired on ABC, not on cable, making it an even stiffer competitor than it is today. The average "MNF" audience was 15.5 million people in 1992; it was 12.9 million people last year. In an era when "Monday Night Football" was a bigger draw than it is now, there was no discernible impact on debate viewership. This could be because the audiences for NFL games — though they are the envy most television producers — are generally dwarfed by those for general election presidential debates.

A vice presidential debate has conflicted with an NFL game only once in the previous six election years.

Out of six VP debates since 1992, the 2012 showdown between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan — up against "Thursday Night Football" on the NFL Network — attracted the second-biggest audience.

The most-watched Veep debate was, of course, the 2008 edition featuring Sarah Palin. In fact, Palin vs. Biden got higher ratings than any of the three presidential debates that year. As Reuters noted rather dryly at the time, "a larger-than-usual audience was expected for Palin and Biden going into their debate, given the questions raised about the Alaska governor's readiness and the widespread lampooning of her previous appearances in the media."

The point is factors besides scheduling — namely the electorate's level of interest — contribute to TV ratings. If Trump is the "ratings machine" he claims to be, history suggests he ought to do just fine against the NFL.