Sixth Republican Debate Grabs 11 Million Viewers

The primary debates continue to draw in a lot of viewers.

Sixth Repulican Debate

The Sixth Republican debate on Thursday night garnered the lowest number of viewers of any Republican debate so far, but still a respectable number in the context of past election cycles:

The first Republican debate of 2016 on the Fox Business Network averaged 11 million viewers — the smallest total for any GOP debate this season, according to Nielsen ratings data.

The GOP debate last month, televised by CNN, averaged 18 million viewers in prime time.

Still, Thursday’s Fox Business debate ratings are impressive when put into proper historical context. The GOP debate slate — with Donald Trump front and center — continues to blow past ratings records from past primary seasons.

Thursday’s debate beat every other show on TV except for “The Big Bang Theory.” Directly up against the debate at 9 p.m., the Fox broadcast network’s reality show “American Idol” averaged 8.65 million viewers.

The GOP candidates trumped the Idols.

Among all viewers, the total was 11 million for the prime time debate between 9 and 11:30 p.m. Eastern; among viewers ages 25 to 54, the key demographic for cable news channels, 3 million tuned in.


Lack of interest in the “undercard” this time around may have put a damper on the prime time totals. The mostly overlooked 6 p.m. debate averaged 2 million viewers and 289,000 in the 25-54 demo.

The ratings are a closely-watched measure of the public’s interest in the presidential election.

At this point in the 2008 and 2012 primaries, GOP debates were drawing 5 to 7 million.

There’s been a dramatic uptick in this cycle, spurred by Trump’s surprise entrance into the race and his unpredictable, entertaining style.

As with the fourth GOP debate, the relatively lower numbers that Thursday’s debate drew are likely due in part to the fact that Fox Business Network is not as widely available on cable systems as CNN, Fox News Channel, or even CNBC. The next Republican debate, and the last one before the Iowa Caucuses, will be on January 28th on Fox News Channel and is likely to draw higher numbers than what we saw on Thursday. Even 11 million viewers is rather impressive, though, and whether it’s Donald Trump, increased interested in the 2016 race compared to 2008 and 2012, or a combination of both, the debates this cycle have certainly drawn large audiences, although they have declined somewhat from the start of the process. The first Republican debate on Fox News Channel, for example, drew a rather astounding 24 million viewers and that was followed by a second GOP debate on CNN that came in with an equally impressive 22 million viewers at the beginning of September. Heading into October, viewership became to decline a bit as 14 million people tuned in watch the third Republican debate on CNBC and 13.5 million watched the fourth debate, which was also broadcast on Fox Business Network. Viewership seemingly bounced back last month, though, when 18 million people watched the fifth Republican debate on CNN.

The numbers have been somewhat more subdued on the Democratic side. While the first debate, broadcast on a weekday on CNN, garnered 15 million viewers, subsequent debates have seen much lower numbers. A Saturday night debate in November, for example, garnered 8.5 million viewers while the third Democratic debate, which took place the Saturday before Christmas, had 6.7 million viewers. One suspects that the fourth Democratic debate, scheduled for tonight in South Carolina, will draw similarly low numbers compared to the GOP debates, although viewership may be spiked somewhat thanks to what appears to be an increasingly competitive race between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders and the fact that this is, for many people, a three-day weekend.

On the whole, though, even the lower numbers that the Democratic debates have drawn as compared to the GOP debates are higher than what we saw during the 2008 and 2012 debates, and much higher than what we saw during the 2000 and 2004 cycles. In part, I suspect, this is due to the fact that there is far more “saturation” coverage of the election on the various cable news channels and this coverage helps to drive up interest in the election itself even among people who only follow politics casually. More broadly, though, it seems as though this is an election in which the interest of the American public is already fairly high. Whether that will translate into increased voter participation is, of course, another question entirely.


FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, 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. In part, I suspect, this is due to the fact that there is far more “saturation” coverage of the election on the various cable news channels

    Is thee really? Compared to the 1990s, you’d definitely be correct. But my recollection of even 2000 and 2004 is that the airwaves were pretty saturated with coverage.

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    Everyone loves a circus – especially one that has a car full of clowns.

  3. edmondo says:

    Sixth Republican Debate Grabs 11 Million Viewers

    Yeah, but to be fair, ten million of them were Chrstie’s pizza delivery guys waiting to see when they should start their engines.

  4. I would suggest three likely explanations:

    1) The Trump factor (aka, the sideshow of it all).

    2) The competition factor: this is an open seat (no incumbent) and there are a lot of candidates–with no clear winner as yet.

    3) People haven’t made up their minds yet (which fits with #2).

  5. CSK says:

    I’d vote for the sideshow effect, particularly since Trump is now engaged in a frantic Twitterwar with Cruz. Or, I should say, Trump is trying to start a Twitterwar with Cruz.

    Trump’s a forty-car pile-up on a major highway: You don’t want to look, but you can’t help looking.

  6. Tyrell says:

    The Democrats have relegated their debate tv to when few will
    be watching. I am wondering why that is.
    “If you need help, and you can find them, maybe you can hire the A Team !” (B.A. Baracus, Hannibal Smith, Face, Murdock)

  7. grumpy realist says:

    @Tyrell: It’s the DNC trying to help out Hillary, is my suspicion.

    If this election ends up blowing up the “establishment” aspect of both parties, good riddance.

  8. CSK says:

    @grumpy realist:

    Are you up for a nine-month-long Trump-Sanders cage match?

  9. Tillman says:

    I’ll give Jeb credit: he’s stubborn if also blind (which can rarely be a virtue). I suppose his hope, and Christie’s and Kasich’s hope now that I think on it, is the crossfire between Trump and Cruz and Rubio shines up his milquetoast performances to date?

  10. Ryan says:

    @Tyrell: As Grumpy said. It is the DNC playing favorites for Hillary. But this will either backfire when: 1. Bernie wins anyway and America gets a better leader than it currently deserves. Or 2. Hillary wins the nomination and ultimately loses to Trump. There is no way establishment candidates can win the election this year.

  11. Tyrell says:

    @CSK: Hillary keeps trying to out left Bernie. If she moves any further to the left, she is going to be sitting in the foul seats at Wrigley Field: a cold place in February. Sanders needs try a NASCAR move: swing out to the right and pass her on the home stretch. Worked a lot for Jeff Gordon.

  12. anjin-san says:


    I suppose if you live in the world of modern “conservatives” where Eisenhower was a communist who stole most of the wealth of the job creators, this might seem true.

  13. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    As with the fourth GOP debate, the relatively lower numbers that Thursday’s debate drew are likely due in part to the fact that Fox Business Network is not as widely available on cable systems as CNN, Fox News Channel, or even CNBC.

    Or it might be that people who watch the debates to understand who they will be voting for have concluded that the debates are an information-free zone where the candidates contextualize the questions into attacks on their competitors or attacks on the outgoing administration for the purpose of drawing applause from the however many hundred people the campaigns invite to attend.

  14. infideli says:

    @Russell Newquist: That’s about double what any of the Democrat clown debates have done. I heard that Bernie actually said Hillary was “inaccurate”!!! OMG! The gloves are off now!

  15. infideli says:

    @Ron Beasley: Hahahaha! That’s a new one! Did you think of that all by yourself? Pretty good for a Democrat! How original! Hahahaha!