Third Democratic Debate Grabs 6.7 Million Viewers, The Lowest Yet For Any 2016 Debate

To nobody's surprise, the third Democratic Debate received the lowest ratings yet of any debate so far this election cycle.

Third Democratic Debate Sanders Clinton O'Malley

As expected, Saturday’s Third Democratic Debate grabbed the smallest viewership numbers of any debate so far this election cycle, but the numbers were still relatively higher than what we’ve seen in previous election cycles:

The Dems are still going unnoticed on Saturday nights.

This weekend’s Democratic debate had little trouble winning a television ratings battle against a lineup of other networks’ reruns. But, when it comes to competing against their GOP counterparts, the Democrats still haven’t come close to pulling in as many viewers as Donald Trump, et al.

A little more than 6.7 million people tuned in to ABC  on Saturday night to watch Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton debate a range of issues with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley, according to Nielsen. That was more than enough to win the debate’s time-slot, with a rerun of CBS  hit drama NCIS coming in just behind the Dems with nearly 5.2 million viewers.

Not unexpectedly given the fact that it was scheduled opposite an NFL face off between the Jets and the Cowboys, during the opening weekend of the most anticipated movie of the year, and during the final shopping weekend before Christmas, this was the lowest rated debate of the election cycle. By comparison, the first Democratic Debate garnered some 15 million viewers while the second Democratic debate got some 8.5 million viewers. The event also got less than half the number of viewers of the least watched Republican debate so far, the November debate that aired on Fox Business Network and got some 13.5 million viewers. The other Republican debates have garner 24 million viewers for the first debate in August, 22 million viewers, 14 million viewers for the debate that aired on CNBC in late October and, most recently 18 million viewers for the most recent Republican debate last week in Nevada.

As I’ve said before, critics, pundits, and both of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic opponents have suggested that the debate schedule, both in the way it limits the number of debates and has scheduled most of them on weekends, seem to be part of a strategy to protect the presumptive front-runner for the nomination  by limiting the amount of free media time. Whether that is part of a strategy or just the way things have worked out, that seems to be exactly what has happened. The Democratic National Committee has rejected this criticism and argued that the fact that the debates have mostly ended up on weekends is due to the fact that they made the decision to air the debates on broadcast networks rather than cable, thus limiting the time slots that were potentially available since broadcast networks are generally unwilling to give away blocks of time on weeknights when regularly scheduled programming brings in higher viewership and higher advertising revenue. Even if that’s true, though, the numbers for the Republican debates, all of which have aired on cable networks that are generally part of most basic cable packages have been far better than either of the Democratic debates aired on broadcast networks where more viewers can, theoretically at least, access the programming. Additionally, the first Democratic debate was aired on CNN and it garnered more nearly twice as many viewers as the highest-rated of the two debates that followed it. That suggests that Democrats could have reached more viewers with the second and third debates if it had partnered with a cable network rather than a broadcast network. Given that, the idea that these debates were deliberately scheduled to limit the number of people who might see them begins to sound plausible, as does the idea that the Democratic National Committee has been putting its thumb on the scale for Hillary Clinton since the beginning of this process.

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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. Ben says:

    Exactly as the DNC hoped. They have tried to bury these debates with all of their might. I’m surprised they didn’t have the balls to just not bother televising them at all. They are going to do everything within their power to seal this up for Hillary with as little fight as possible.

  2. Andre Kenji says:

    DWS is being a perfect gift for the Republicans as head of the DNC. The worst thing is that I doubt that is going to help Hillary Clinton, that´s getting far less exposure than the Republicans.

  3. Carl Pleasance says:

    DNC doesn’t want anyone hearing #FeelTheBern, because he’s 100% smarter and more likable than HRC.

  4. Kevin R says:

    The debate schedule and timing have gained more attention than the debates themselves.
    The bottom line is that the DNC continues to embarrass themselves while Bernie continues to gain financial and grassroots support. DWS’s attempts to game the system in Hillary’s favor has given Bernie supporters their version of “Remember the Alamo”–a rallying cry that has galvanized his faithful and re-ignited his campaign.

  5. Tyrell says:

    It was so boring that Hillary thought it was over and was leaving the building.

  6. CSK says:


    You may have a point. The reason the Republican debates get such a large viewership is that two-thirds of the people watching are probably hoping for Donald Trump to start yelling about schlongs.

  7. edmondo says:

    @Carl Pleasance:

    …because he’s 100% smarter and more likable than HRC.

    Herpes is more likable than HRC, at least that goes away after a while.

  8. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Carl Pleasance:

    Bernie Sanders is polling at a 60 point disadvantage, 77% to 17%, among likely African-American voters. Worse, months of targeted outreach by the Sanders campaign to that demographic has actually resulted in the margin getting larger.

    No Democrat gets nominated without that vote bloc. In a political sense, Sanders is a dead man walking. I realize that the BernieBots™ want to believe that unicorns are real, but unfortunately, they’re not.

    (Oh, and this feelthebern thing, which has become the equivalent of internet graffiti at this point, is obnoxious)

  9. the Q says:

    DWS is an abortion who looks like the female version of the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

    She is so far in the tank for HRC is an embarrassment.

    And here’s how Trump wins the election….by debating HRC and saying, “and do we really want a sex addict banging broads two at a time in the Lincoln bedroon while Hillary is away on some foreign policy junket? All the while raising billions for his foundation. Don’t let these plutocrats fool you again into even thinking they care for the little man, otherwise Hillary will end up signing a bill allowing child labor for her liberal friends at Apple, just like Bill got rid of the first bill of the New Deal – Glass Steagall.

    Hillary will do about as well as JEB!!! has done in rebutting Trump’s insults since she is twice as inauthentic as he is.

  10. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @the Q:

    Speaking of purity trolls … 😀

  11. Tyrell says:

    Sanders was so bored at the debate he got out a book to read:
    “The Art of the Deal”

  12. Andre Kenji says:

    @HarvardLaw92: That´s why the idea of limiting the debates was a bad idea. Sanders is the perfect challenger for Hillary: he is inoffensive. He can´t win the nomination nor force Hillary to the left.

  13. Tyrell says:

    A lot of people are jumping on the Democrat leaders for putting this debate on the Saturday night tv which is a dead zone of tv viewership.
    They complain their candidates have been hidden from the people, compared to the numbers the Republican “Circus World” has been getting. Maybe that is their idea, let the Republicans burn out.
    If it turns out to be Trump – Hillary, there could be a lot of support for an independent candidate. Sanders has a lot of followers. A team of Sanders – Powell, Bloomberg, Gates, or even Buffet could get 30 %.

  14. HarvardLaw92 says:

    @Andre Kenji:

    There’s little value for her, as a presumptive nominee, in doing anything which gives free media attention or a soapbox to her opponents. She’s followed a strategy thus far of essentially pretending Sanders and O’Malley don’t exist and she’s already the nominee – a perception everything she’s doing is IMO designed to reinforce in the minds of the primary electorate. She wants them viewing her as though she’s already been nominated. Her real debate performances will come against the Republican nominee.

    She’ll be able to say that she treated Sanders well, and he’ll cheerfully endorse her and go back to his Senate seat (which IMO has always been his intention) once his campaign dies its naturally ordained death, having gotten what he was after – a podium from which to expound on his worldview.

  15. HarvardLaw92 says:


    Sanders running as an independent would split the Democratic vote and ensure that a Republican gets elected, much like (no, exactly like …) Nader did in 2000.

    That having been said, Sanders has been adamant thus far that he has no intention of mounting an independent bid for the presidency, which is prudent on his part 1) because he knows he would lose and 2) because he would instantly become public enemy number 1 for every sitting Democratic senator when he returns to his seat. Nothing he subsequently introduced would garner co-sponsors or move forward, and $1 will get you $100 that he’d find himself stripped of his committee assignments.

    The guy is an idealist, but he isn’t stupid …