Final Presidential Debate Draws 71.6 Million Viewers

The final debate of 2016 didn't draw as many viewers as the first Hillary v. Donald match-up, but it still drew a respectable number.

The final debate matchup Wednesday night between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump brought in 71.6 million viewers, beating the second contest in the ratings but failing to top the record-setting first debate, according to Nielsen.

The first clash brought in 84 million viewers, the most ever for a presidential debate, while 66.5 million tuned in for the second. Both of those events went head-to-head with National Football League games, while Wednesday’s debate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas did not.

Fox News, whose host Chris Wallace moderated the debate, beat out both the broadcast and cable competition with about 11.3 million viewers. About 8.7 million people tuned in on CNN while 5.5 million watched on MSNBC.

Among the broadcasters, ABC won with nearly 11 million viewers, while NBC brought in 10.4 million, CBS had 10.1 million viewers and 6.6 million watched on Fox. NBC beat the broadcasters comfortably in the first debate, but aired “Sunday Night Football” the night of the second contest.

During the 90-minute debate, which got off to a sedate start before turning more combative, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Trump argued over issues ranging from the Supreme Court to abortion to immigration. Mr. Trump refused to say whether he would honor the results of the election, saying that he will “tell you at the time.” Mr. Wallace was credited with pressing the candidates on the issues.

Ratings for the third debate in 2012 brought in 59.2 million viewers.

CNN media reporter Brian Stelter has more:

About 71.6 million people tuned in for the third and final presidential debate of the year.

The total audience was smaller than the first Trump-Clinton face-off on September 26, but bigger than the rematch on October 9.

Reflecting the intense interest in this election, Wednesday’s debate was significantly higher-rated than the final debates of the 2008 and 2012 cycles.

President Obama and Mitt Romney’s final debate in 2012 averaged 59 million viewers. Obama and John McCain’s final debate in 2008 averaged 56 million.

According to Nielsen, 12 channels that carried the debate averaged 71.6 million viewers altogether.

Some other channels, like C-SPAN, are not rated by Nielsen. Internet live streams are measured separately.

Clinton and Trump’s first debate averaged 84 million viewers via TV — setting a new TV record.The rematch averaged 66 million. The decline was partly due to competition from “Sunday Night Football.”

On Wednesday night, there was no NFL competition, but there was a highly anticipated Cubs-Dodgers playoff game.

The debate was moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News, marking the first time that a Fox journalist led a general election debate. Fox’s extensive promotion paid off: the channel’s coverage of the debate averaged 11.3 million viewers, out-rating its rivals.

CNN was close behind Fox in the key demographic of 25- to 54-year-olds, and topped Fox in that demo after the debate.

Nielsen metrics showed relatively steady viewership throughout the 90-minute debate, with just a small amount of drop-off in the 10 p.m. hour.

As before, these numbers don’t reflect people who watching via Internet livestreams, nor does it include the number of people who may have been watching on C-SPAN since Nielsen does not include that network in its monitoring of viewership. The fact that there was a drop off from the first debate isn’t very surprising, of course, since this is generally the pattern with Presidential debates in the past and, as noted, the fact that viewership was higher than it had been for the second debate is likely largely due to the lack of competition from an NFL game this time around, especially since it meant that NBC’s broadcast stations, which were running the football game during the last debate, were all showing the debate this time around. Additionally, as I noted after the second debate, there was a large swath of the southern United States that was still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Matthew at the time of the second debate. With that out of the way, it’s not surprising that ratings bounced back.

These numbers also mark the final numbers in a pattern we’ve seen since the start of this Presidential race. Whether its because of the presence of Donald Trump or other factors, there has been a tremendous amount of interest in the Presidential race this year to an extent that arguably rivals what we saw in 2008 with the candidacy of Barack Obama, and the ratings for the Democratic and Republican Primary debates, as well as the Presidential debates, have been one powerful indication of that. Whether it translates into turnout, and what that means for the the outcome of the race, is something we won’t know until the results are in on Election Night. My suspicion is that part of it is motivated by people who are supporting Trump who haven’t voted in the past, and that a good part of it is motivated by negative reaction to Trump and the desire to ensure that he isn’t elected President. The question, in the end, is which group is larger, although my guess is that it’s the anti-Trump crowd. As I said, we’ll find out on Election Night.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Politicians, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Ratufa says:

    Since so many Americans are still interested in hearing the candidates debate, I see nothing wrong with this:

  2. dxq says:

    Chris Wallace was a decent moderator, though he did frame almost everything in a right-wing frame, and Hillary still knocked it out of the park.

  3. DrDaveT says:

    As before, these numbers don’t reflect people who watching via Internet livestreams the people who will actually elect Clinton president

    Fixed that for you.

    I’m more than halfway to geezerhood, and no kind of early adopter of technology, and even I realize that people more than ten years younger than I am basically never actually ‘watch’ a “TV show” when it is ‘broadcast’ any more, except perhaps some sporting events. Not the way I did my whole life. Between webcasts, live blogging, DVR, “on demand” services, YouTube, etc. etc. it’s just not how people consume media any more. Hell, even I couldn’t stand to watch the blather live — I followed the 538 live blog reactions, and watched snippets after the fact.

    Nielsen is no longer either accurate or relevant.

  4. dxq says:

    Jeff Flake is now urging the GOP to confirm Garland if Hillary wins.

  5. MBunge says:

    @DrDaveT: Nielsen is no longer either accurate or relevant.

    You sound like people back in the 00s who said the book was headed for the ash heap of history. Or the people back in the 90s who said the graphic novel was going to replace the poor old comic book. Or the people back in the 60s who thought “free love” was the only way to live.

    People still watch television. A whole lot of people. And while there are a bunch who consume visual media in other ways, almost all of it is parasitically built on traditional TV and movies.


  6. Tony W says:


    Jeff Flake is now urging the GOP to confirm Garland if Hillary wins.

    And I’m hoping Obama plays hard-ball and takes that option away.

  7. Blue Galangal says:

    @Tony W: I think Obama’s too much of a gentleman; and Merrick Garland doesn’t deserve that. Be funny if the Democrats filibustered him though. Not that I would want to see that. But it would be funny. “No, sorry, you all said you wanted the NEXT president to pick the next justice… we’re just saving you from your own weakness.” koffkoff

  8. DrDaveT says:


    You sound like people back in the 00s who said the book was headed for the ash heap of history.

    No, I sound like the people who say that, if you want to know how many books people are reading, and you aren’t counting Kindle and NOOK and Google Read (not to mention Audible and Overdrive), you’re getting the wrong answer.

    People still watch television.

    Of course. But they mean something different by “watch television” than they did in 1980, and they increasingly do it in ways that don’t show up in Neilsen counts. And the ones missing from the count are not a random sample.

  9. Mister Bluster says:

    @MBunge:..Or the people back in the 60s who thought “free love” was the only way to live.

    “Free Love” Ha! Ha! Ha!
    I was in college in 1966.
    There was always a price to pay!

  10. CSK says:


    Apropos of that, Neilsen Book Scan only counts 75% of print sales, and disregards Kindle, Nook, or any other non-print/paper medium.

  11. CSK says:

    Well, Jim Murphy, Trump’s national political director, has “stepped back” from the campaign for “personal reasons.”

    Isn’t he the third one to bail from this particular post?

  12. dxq says:

    @Blue Galangal: Garland doesn’t deserve having the happiest moment of his career being shitted on by amoral republican scum for the last 6 months. That has been, and continues to be, a travesty, both for Garland personally and for the integrity of government. I would be sad for us as a country if Garland didn’t get it.

    But, if he doesn’t, HRC will find a more solid liberal who’s also 15 years younger, so your move, scum of the earth Republicans.