Second Republican Debate Garners Record-Setting Ratings For CNN

More than 23 million people watched the debate Wednesday night.

Republican Debate September 16

Not surprisingly, Wednesday night’s Republican Presidential Debate on CNN garnered record-setting ratings, although initial figures indicate that the total viewership numbers may have been slightly below those of August’s debate on Fox News Channel:

Wednesday’s prime time GOP debate averaged 23.1 million viewers, making it the most-watched program in CNN’s history.

The 6 p.m. “undercard” debate drew 6.3 million viewers.

These are NFL-level ratings — affirming that the Donald Trump fueled Republican debate slate is one of the most popular television shows of the year.

For comparison’s sake, CNN’s most-watched presidential primary debate before Wednesday was a Democratic debate on January 31, 2008. It had an average of 8.3 million viewers.

CNN’s most-watched program overall was a special “Larry King Live” episode in 1993. The episode featured Al Gore and Ross Perot debating NAFTA and averaged 16.8 million viewers.

Wednesday’s matchup easily surpassed that total.

It was slightly lower-rated than Fox’s GOP face-off one month ago in Ohio, though.

That prime time debate, the first of the season, averaged 24 million live viewers. Fox’s earlier debate that day averaged 6.1 million.

What accounts for the difference? For one thing, Fox’s main debate was two hours long while CNN’s was three hours.

From a campaign’s perspective, longer might have been better, because it gave the 11 candidates more time to talk and argue. It also gave CNN more time for commercial breaks.

But the length probably diminished the overall ratings. That’s because the ratings are an average of minute-by-minute viewership, so if viewers didn’t stay for the whole program, the average was lower.

CNN’s audience grew exponentially starting at 5 p.m., when about 1 million viewers were tuned in for pre-debate coverage.

The 6 p.m. hour, featuring the beginning of the “undercard” debate, averaged 4.8 million viewers (with many more toward the end of the hour). The 7 p.m. hour, with the rest of the first debate and analysis from CNN commentators, averaged 7.2 million.

Then the audience really surged. The 8 p.m. hour averaged 20.7 million viewers. The peak came in the 9 p.m. hour, right around the middle of the main debate, with an average of 24.7 million.

Some critics said they thought the debate began to lose some steam in the 10 p.m. hour. The ratings indicate that there was only a modest drop-off — from 24.7 million at 9 p.m. to 22.5 million at 10 p.m.

Nearly 20 million were still watching when the debate ended at 11:15 p.m.

Unlike Fox’s debate, which as noted drew some 24 million viewers on a Thursday in early August, CNN also made it’s coverage available for free via online streaming and on all of its mobile apps. Preliminary reports indicate that there were approximately 921,000 people who accessed that live stream for all or part of the debate. The debate was also broadcast live on the approximately 250 stations owned by the Salem Media Network, which co-sponsored the debate, although there don’t seem to be any ratings reports for the radio broadcast at this time. So, if you add those online numbers into the initial television numbers then the two debates drew about the same size audience. Since CNN’s servers seem to have handled the livestreaming demand quite well, it’s likely that we’ll see that offered for future debates as well, both during the primary process and next year during the General Election.

In any case, these two debates have drawn bigger audiences than any of the primary debates during the 2008 and 2012 cycles. Obviously, a great deal of that can be attributed to the fact that Donald Trump is running for President, but I’m sure the campaigns of the other candidates are pleased by the additional exposure that these higher ratings bring them. The next debate on the schedule will be a Democratic Debate in Nevada on October 13th which will also be hosted by CNN, followed by the third Republican debate on October 28th, which will be held in Colorado and covered by CNBC. Whether the increased interest in the race that we’ve seen from the ratings of these first two debates continues into the future remains to be seen, but I’m sure the networks carrying those debates will do their best to make sure it does by hyping the events as much as possible.

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2016, US Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds 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. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. J-Dub says:

    Someone should tell the 5’8″ Rand Paul to never stand next to 6’5″ George Pataki if he ever wants to get elected POTUS. He looks like a child next to him, especially with that haircut, or lack thereof.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    This is sad. I watched it because as assistant editor of the Moderate Voice it was required. I only wrote a very short post because it was for the most part substance free,

  3. al-Ameda says:

    It has to be galling to many on the Right that CNN – one of the avatars of the so-called Mainstream Liberal Media – made a lot of money televising the Republican Debate.

    In all honesty, the lesson I learned was, for the time being, except for Carly Fiorina and maybe Jeb Bush, the others have not yet figured out how to prevent Trump from sucking 90% of the oxygen out of the room. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are fortunate that it’s early on.

  4. Pinky says:

    The original article doesn’t seem to get that 3 hours X 23 million is bigger than 2 hours X 24 million.

    While I’m sure that Trump had his impact on the main event, it seems remarkable to me that the 12th-15th placed candidates can pull in more than 6 million viewers/

  5. PJ says:

    People enjoy watching train wrecks.
    People enjoy watching reality shows.

    Trump is the reality show train wreck star of the GOP primaries.

    Consider that CNN and Fox have been making a lot of money from these debates, neither of them is going to help the establishment GOP to sink Trump. Why would TV kill its ratings star? I bet most networks are having wet dreams about General Election debates with Trump…

  6. Tillman says:

    Somehow I doubt Berniementum (or whatever dumb portmanteau it is) is going to drive anything near those ratings for the Democrats. They’ll probably break a viewership record for Democratic primary debates, but getting just half the audience of this debate pulls that off.

    The real question is what does America think of what it’s seeing? Enough people are watching to qualify early primary debates as legit water cooler topics.

  7. PJ says:


    Someone should tell the 5’8″ Rand Paul to never stand next to 6’5″ George Pataki if he ever wants to get elected POTUS. He looks like a child next to him, especially with that haircut, or lack thereof.

    And Jeb Bush was standing on his toes to look taller. And then he lied about why he did it. (I’m going to say lie, because if anyone actually believe him, then I’m a Nigerian prince with a bridge to sell…)

  8. Jim R says:

    The next one should be on Comedy Central.