The Democratic National Committee (DNC) will quietly host its last presidential candidates' debate of the year on Saturday night — at 8pm, the weekend before Christmas, during one of the busiest travel periods of the year.
The date and timing of the ABC-hosted debate, held in the early-voting state of New Hampshire, has not gone unnoticed, particularly by candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley. They have separately accused the DNC of shielding frontrunner Hillary Clinton and her current advantage in the polls. Clinton currently leads Sanders by roughly 31 points, according to the latest ABC/Washington Post poll.
This week, O'Malley, who is currently polling at around 5 percent, again repeated his vocal disapproval of the DNC's limited six-debate schedule, saying that the committee needed to "stop acting in undemocratic ways."
"The Democratic Party should not limit debates or close off debates," the former Maryland governor said at a press conference in New York on Tuesday. "Look when the Republicans scheduled theirs: On a weeknight when the greatest number of people see it and talk about it the next day. Look when our party schedules the debates: the same time as [the movie] Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer — on a Saturday."
Tensions were also running high a day before the debate, when the Sanders campaign filed a lawsuit against the DNC after the committee barred his team from accessing a national voter database.
The mess began after a Sanders staffer viewed information on potential supporters that had been gathered by Clinton's campaign. The glitch reportedly occurred while a patch was being applied to the software that ordinarily protects campaigns from accessing each other's data. The DNC immediately shut off the team's access to the entire database — a move that Jeff Weaver, the campaign manager for Sanders, said was motivated by favoritism toward Clinton.
"The reality is that the huge turnouts that we've had at our meetings, our strong fundraising, our volunteer base, and quick rise in the polls have caused the Democratic National Committee to place its thumb on the scales in support of Hillary Clinton's campaign," Weaver wrote in a memo to voters on Friday afternoon. "You see that fact evidenced in their decision to bury the Democratic debates on weekends during nationally televised football games. It's more or less an open secret."
'This sort of rigged process has never been attempted before.'
Tonight's forum is the third of six scheduled Democratic primary debates over the 2016 election cycle, and, if the last one was any indicator, it will likely continue the downward trend in debate ratings. Even though the last Democratic debate in Iowa was held just a day after the Paris terror attacks, which overshadowed much of news and the conversation in following weeks, the DNC's decision to host the forum on a Saturday torpedoed viewership, which came in at roughly 8.5 million, compared with the first forum in Vegas, which brought in 15.3 million viewers. It was a particular disappointment to Sanders and O'Malley, who are both vying for more airtime to edge into Clinton's 59 percent favorability rating among Democratic voters.
Before the DNC debate schedule was announced this spring, a senior Democrat with knowledge of the debate negotiations told the Washington Post that the Clinton campaign had fought hard to keep the schedule to just four forums. The DNC eventually settled on six, which is still half the number scheduled for Republican candidates.
The decision failed to satisfy Sanders or O'Malley, who in August rebuffed the DNC at the committee's summer meeting.
"This sort of rigged process has never been attempted before," O'Malley said at the meeting before exiting the stage and exchanging a tense handshake with DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. "One debate in Iowa. That's it. One debate in New Hampshire. That's all we can afford."
The former Maryland Governor's scathing critique of the limited debate schedule was one of the few issues that bought him significant media attention in the weeks prior to the first debate in mid-October. At the time, he was polling at around 2 percent — similar to numbers Republican candidate Carly Fiorina was receiving before a strong performance in the first GOP debate shot her briefly to second place behind Donald Trump.
But O'Malley has not been the only one to dress down the DNC over its perceived favoritism. Harvard professor Lawrence Lessig quit his long-shot campaign in early November after accusing the Democratic Party of "changing the rules" to push him out of inclusion in the second debate.
"It is now clear that the party won't let me be a candidate — and I can't ask people to support a campaign that I know can't even get before the members of the Democratic Party," Lessig said in a video announcing his retirement from the race.
"I know, and you know, that the best chance for this country is discussing the issues that matter," his campaign wrote. "Republicans aren't going to do it, so we need more Democratic debates — more than the 4 scheduled by the DNC before the Iowa caucuses."
"I know that if Secretary Clinton wants more debates, we'll get them," it added.
The Republican National Committee has also not been shy in seizing on the internal wrangling in the Democratic camp. In contrast to the DNC schedule, the GOP settled on double the number of debates to give its vastly bigger field of candidates more airtime. The first two Republican debates garnered 20 million viewers each, while the latest and fifth forum on Tuesday drew 18 million.
"If a tree falls in the middle of the forest and nobody hears it, did it really fall? That question lingers over tomorrow night's Democrat debate in Des Moines, which was purposely scheduled by the DNC to ensure low viewership to protect Hillary Clinton," RNC Communications Director Sean Spicer said in November memo.
"Hosting a debate in Iowa on a Saturday night where the fifth-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes football team will continue its march toward a national championship will ensure this debate has little impact on the state of play in the Democrat primary," he added.
But the DNC has continued to defend its decision to schedule fewer debates, saying it consulted with campaigns beforehand.
After tonight, the next Democratic debate is set for the Sunday night of the Martin Luther King Day weekend, during the National Football League playoffs.
Follow Liz Fields on Twitter: @lianzifields