First Clinton v. Trump Debate Sets Record At 81 Million Viewers

First Presidential Debate 2016

Last night’s Presidential debate drew a record number of viewers:

The first general election debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump averaged nearly 81 million viewers, according to data from Nielsen, making it the most watched presidential debate in modern history.

Until last night, the most-watched debate in history was the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. That debate also averaged just over 80 million viewers. With a few networks still to be counted by Nielsen, and the 80 million figure not including anyone who watched online, last night’s debate will end up with more people watching than any prior presidential debate. In 2012, the first debate between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama averaged 70 million viewers. In 2008, the first debate between John McCain and Obama averaged 53 million viewers.

On cable news, Fox News led the way with more than 11 million viewers. NBC led the broadcast networks with more than 18 million people tuning in.

The ratings put the debate in rare company. Of TV programs that drew an average of more than 80 million viewers, most were NFL Super Bowl broadcasts, with the others were the finales of M.A.S.H. and Cheers. Of course, the debate aired on a dozen TV networks and streamed online, whereas the Super Bowl and M.A.S.H. only aired on one channel each.

The numbers do not include anyone watching on PBS, Univision or non-rated TV channels like C-SPAN, nor does it include anyone that streamed the debate online. Data from Facebook, YouTube and other digital sources suggests that millions more people watched the debate live online.

When and if the numbers from those other networks and from the online services is added into the mix, it’s like that the total number of viewers nationwide will increase by several million people at least. The Republican and Democratic primaries, of course, resulted in several highly rated debates so it isn’t surprising that we’re seeing record numbers tune in for the General Election debates, although it’s unlikely that any of the future debates will have numbers quite this high. What’s unclear is what this might mean for voter turnout for the election itself. The 2012 Obama v. Romney election, for example, had lower turnout than the 2008 election, and there are few indications that this year will see the turnout of eight years ago.

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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. SKI says:

    As big a factor: the viewership didn’t materially drop from 9 to 10:40. That is, there aren’t many folks who only saw Trump’s “better” first 20 minutes. They stuck around for his unraveling…

  2. Tillman says:

    That is a bona fide cultural moment. Trump’s never had an audience that big, and look what he did with it.

  3. rachel says:

    This news really makes me wonder what the next debate will bring up.

  4. Tyrell says:

    Some of the networks built this up like it was the Ali -Frazier or Foreman – Frazier fights.
    “Down goes Frazier, Down goes Frazier ! ” Howard Cosell (some of the most famous words in sports history)