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Report: Presidential Primary Debate Audiences
This memo looks at the audiences the Presidential Primary debates received in 2016 and 2008. The Republicans have completed their full 12 debate schedule for the 2015-2016 cycle. We now have the final numbers for the debate audiences for the Democrats and Republicans. The top line analysis can be found below, and tables of the audiences of each debate which received ratings in both 2016 and 2008 can be found on pages 4 and 5 of the full memo, attached (at bottom). More information about the debate over the 2016 debates can be found in our backgrounder (Updated on Wednesday 5/25/16).
2016, Republicans – 12 debates, 186.3m total viewers, 15.53m viewers per debate.
2016, Democrats – 9 debates, 72.03m total viewers, 8m viewers per debate.
2008, Republicans – 14 debates, 42.87m total viewers, 3.07m viewers per debate.
2008, Democrats – 16 debates, 75.22m total viewers, 4.7m viewers per debate (Dems had another 10 debates which were not rated, so total viewership was higher than 75.22m).
GOP Dramatically Outperforms Dems in 2016 and Rs in 2008 – In 2008, the 16 Democratic debates outperformed the 14 GOP debates by more than 53% per debate (4.7m per debate vs 3.07m). In 2016, the 12 GOP debates have outperformed the 9 Democratic debates by a much larger margin, over 94% per debate (15.53m vs 8m). It is a dramatic reversal.
The 12 GOP debates have produced more than 5 times the audience per debate than their 14 debates produced in 2008, and almost 5 times the total audience. The 9 DNC debates produced almost twice the audience per debate that the 2008 debates produced, but, in aggregate, produced a total audience 3 million less than the 2008 debates produced.
Democratic Debate Schedule Struggles to Match 2008 – Despite very large audiences for the debates this cycle, the smaller number of Democratic debates (9 compared to 12 GOP in 2016 and 26 in 2008) means that the total audience of the Democratic debates in 2016 was 3 million less than the 2008 Democratic total, and 114m less than the 2016 GOP total.
DNC’s Original Debate Schedule Audience – The DNC’s original six debate schedule produced an audience of 48.4m. After requests from many, including the Clinton and Sanders campaigns, the DNC added four debates on February 3rd. The DNC also smartly brought in CNN to augment its PBS and Univision debates. These improvements in the schedule brought an additional 24m viewers, 8m from the CNN re-broadcasts and 16m from the three additional debates conducted so far. Augmenting the original schedule increased the overall Democratic debate audience by 50%.
The Townhalls – While the audiences for the CNN town halls were not significant, the formats were. Each of these programs gave viewers a window into the candidate the more rigid debate formats have not. They have been an important innovation this cycle by the DNC, and in coming years should be given more prominence. Our guess is if adequately promoted with more time, viewership for these town halls could be far more significant.
Audience Per Debate