Thursday’s MSNBC Democratic Debate Had Lowest Ratings Yet

Thursday night’s MSNBC Democratic debate, the fourth such debate between the Democratic candidates for President and the first to feature only Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, drew the lowest ratings yet:

MSNBC’s feisty debate between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton received high marks from political observers, but not high ratings from ordinary viewers.

With 4.5 million viewers, it was the lowest-rated debate of the 2016 election cycle by far, according to Nielsen data.

The prior low was 7.8 million viewers for ABC’s Democratic debate on the Saturday night before Christmas.

MSNBC’s debate was a late addition to the lineup, originally announced just over a week ago and not officially sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee until this week. But the channel heavily promoted the debate on Wednesday and Thursday.

The ratings results may suggest some measure of debate fatigue among viewers. MSNBC may have also faced structural disadvantages because it is generally lower-rated than Fox News or CNN.

On the other hand, the 9 p.m. hour when the debate started is usually MSNBC’s highest-rated hour, with about one million viewers a night watching Rachel Maddow’s show, which has been regularly eclipsing CNN recently.

For comparison’s sake, the most recent Democratic debate, televised by MSNBC’s sister channel NBC in January, had about 10 million viewers, more than double Thursday’s result.

That January debate was on a broadcast network, which has a wider reach than a cable news channel. But up until now, in this Donald Trump-fueled election season, cable debates have out-rated broadcast debates.

The most recent GOP debate, a Trump-free match-up on the Fox News Channel, had 12.5 million viewers, and that was considered underwhelming by Fox and GOP debate standards.

The Democratic debates have drawn smaller audiences, but have still surpassed comparable totals from the 2008 primary season.

Such a sharp drop-off in viewership is somewhat surprising, especially with the race for the Democratic nomination becoming seemingly closer by the day, but it may well be that the fact that the debate was scheduled at the last minute amid a cavalcade of post-Iowa news coverage that also included a “Town Hall” style forum featuring Clinton and Sanders on CNN. Even the CNN event, though, seemed to evidence audience fatigue when it comes to political coverage, with that show drawing just 2.7 million viewers. Missing from this is indication of how many people in the crucial audience, New Hampshire, were watching either forum.

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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. Tony W says:

    I am struck by the difference in tone between the two parties’ debates. I wish more people would tune into the D’s debate – it is far less entertaining than the sideshow that the R’s are putting on, but it has far more relevant material to the average voter.

    Alas, our long tradition of showmanship-first wins the day again – as Huey Long and Father Coughlin taught us long ago the plebs are begging to be led from their nose rings…

  2. Tom Ulcak says:

    “debate fatigue”? ha! you are as clueless as the corporate owned media. Bernie supporters were ‘live streaming’ the debate and/or watching it later. the hosting of the debate by a corporate owned outlet has no appeal or draw.
    we watch it later and then discuss it amongst ourselves – on social media, on the internet. basically, msnbc, or any other ‘news outlet’ is out of the loop.
    and that is why they are clueless. we see their cluelessness and we tune out.
    If you want to know what’s going on with the revolution, you better tune in to the social media – get online because you are missing the revolution as it happens! right now!
    don’t you guys get it yet?

  3. Joecu says:

    It had low ratings because it was on MSNBC, a cable channel, many people don’t have cable TV. I tried to watch in on MSNBC’s website but it didn’t work