Trumpless Republican Debate Garners 12.5 Million Viewers

Thursday's debate without Donald Trump drew fewer viewers than might have been expected, but it's unclear if that's because Donald Trump wasn't there.

Seventh Republican Debate

Thursday night’s Trump-less Republican debate ended up drawing 12.5 million viewers, making it among the lowest ranking of the GOP debates this election cycle:

The Fox News Republican debate without Donald Trump on Thursday night drew 12.5 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

The number will probably be interpreted in different ways. From one perspective, it is the second-lowest viewership figure of the seven Republican debates, next to Fox Business’s mid-January debate, which attracted 11.1 million viewers (and, like the others, had Mr. Trump front and center). The figure fell off sharply from December’s CNN debate, which had more than 18 million viewers.

On the other hand, Mr. Trump’s absence did not produce the big drop-off in viewers from other recent debates that Mr. Trump had suggested would happen. In a somewhat drastic overstatement, Mr. Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, had said the ratings number for the Fox News debate, without Mr. Trump, would drop to “one to two million people.”

The debate easily beat the competition on CNN and MSNBC. The two cable channels together had about 2.8 million viewers between 9 and 11 p.m., nearly 10 million fewer than Fox News. The networks provided live coverage of Mr. Trump’s competing event in Iowa — an appearance honoring and raising money for veterans — for about 15 minutes before moving on to round-table discussions and analysis.

Mr. Trump’s event — including supporters like Mike Huckabee and Rick Santorum — was occasionally shown in the background, without the audio turned up.

During Mr. Trump’s event, which took place roughly from 9:15 to 10:15 p.m., CNN attracted about 2 million people, while MSNBC had about 1.4 million. The debate had about 12.8 million viewers during that time block.

By way of comparison:

  • The first Republican debate on Fox News Channel drew 24 million viewers;
  • The second GOP debate on CNN was seen by 22 million viewers
  • The third time Republicans debated, they were seen on CNBC by 14 million people;
  • The fourth debate, which aired on Fox Business network, drew in 13.5 million watched the fourth debate, but much of the drop-off in viewership was likely attributable to the fact that FBN does not appear on as many cable networks as other “basic” channels;
  • The fifth Republican debate, which aired on CNN, brought in 18 million people; and finally,
  • The sixth Republican debate, and the second to air on Fox Business Network, had 11 million viewers

In other words, Thursday’s debate drew in about one-half the number of viewers as the last debate on Fox News Channel and about the same number as the two debates on Fox Business Network. By way of additional comparison, the three Democratic debates have drawn 15 million, 8.5 million, and 6.7 million viewers respectively.

Since neither CNN nor MSNBC provided wall-to-wall coverage of the Trump event, there’s no real way of comparing the ratings draw of the two broadcasts other than the numbers for the passing coverage they gave here. Generally speaking, that kind of coverage isn’t considered a ‘program’ per se and thus isn’t measured by Nielsen for comparison purposes. The Trump event was covered from beginning to end on C-Span, but Nielsen apparently does not include that network in its ratings reports an C-Span doesn’t keep track of its own numbers in any way. Additionally, by way of comparison the fact that the previous Fox News Channel debate drew almost twice as many viewers as Thursday’s debate, and just over a million more than the sixth Republican debate on Fox Business Network, which is available on a much smaller number of cable networks than its parent channel, would seem to indicate that there was a drop off in viewership to some degree. Since correlation doesn’t always equal causation, though, it’s not proper to say that Trump’s absence is the sole reason for the drop. Of course, that won’t stop Trump from claiming that it was.

FILED UNDER: 2016 Election, Economics and Business, 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. Frank Q says:

    2 pages of empty ‘analysis’ by Doug and the NYTimes could’ve been replaced by a simple graph of debate viewership and an analysis of what could explain the trend. In that graph you would have seen the clear downwards trend of the ratings since the first debate. With as outliers the CNN debate, and… the last debate. Just like the Democratic debates having a downward trend. Not saying that proves something either, since Doug mentions the Fox Business Network debate having less reach, so that tweaks the results, but I find it flabbergasting that in an unconscious way, the NYTimes just goes along with the Trump campaign’s frame by not even forming other possible ways to explain the data. No mention that maybe the debate overkill might be to blame, but instead a “the figure fell off sharply since December’s CNN debate”. So the NYTimes takes the only outlier in the graph and use that to push a pro-Trumps’-Frame narrative? As an european the abysmal quality of the US quality media never ceases to confound me.

    I think I would be wrong, but I could easily write an article, show a graph, and “prove” that Trump’s absence *improved* the ratings. Is this what passes for analysis?

  2. Ron Beasley says:

    The Republican debates have largely been substance free. I watched the first one and about 45 minutes of the second and haven’t watched any since then. The entertainment part was lost without Trump for the latest so no need for anyone to watch.

  3. grumpy realist says:

    If anyone had any skepticism about Ross D. being a clueless idiot…..

    The reason Rubio isn’t catching fire (in spite of all the stories the newspapers have been running) is because he’s a piece of Velveeta getting run over by two rampaging buffalo.

  4. Stan says:

    I hope this isn’t off-topic, but I wonder if spending on infrastructure ever comes up in these debates. I’m writing this a) after reading in both Detroit newspapers that Michigan state government employees working in Flint were provided with bottled water (from outside Flint, of course) several months ago after they complained about the taste and smell of the local tap water, and b) reading in today’s New York Times of a Flint resident’s being told by a state nurse in January 2015, regarding her son’s elevated blood lead level, “It is just a few IQ points. … It is not the end of the world.”

    I don’t expect climate change to be a big topic in Republican debates and I know that talk about the condition of our bridges makes eyes glaze even at civil engineering department seminars. But safe water strikes me as important. Has it come at any Republican debate?

  5. JKB says:

    @Stan: But safe water strikes me as important. Has it come at any Republican debate?

    What would you want them to discuss? The failure of the Democrat local government to see to basic services? Or the Democrat run Detroit which in a peeve cut Flint off as soon as they mentioned they were switching to the not yet ready regional water system? Or the EPA under Democrat Barack Obama spending time obsessing over CO2 and forcing coal-fired generating plants to shutdown while suppressing their knowledge of a known dangerous pollutant in Flint’s water supply.

    What would the question be? “Do you believe Democrats are competent to provide government owned and controlled basic services to residents of urban areas or should private providers be mandated to avoid political malfeasance?

  6. Frank Q says:

    @Stan: last one, in fact. See for Kasich’s non-answer.

  7. Barry says:

    @JKB: Since nothing that you said was true……….

  8. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    @Stan: No, if water were handled by the market instead of the government, it would have any lead in it. The market always has the answers–that’s why life was so good (and long) during the middle ages. The market provided exactly what people needed, provided that they could afford it.