Vice-Presidential Debate Draws Lowest Viewership Since 2000

Tuesday night's running mate debate had lower viewership than any such encounter in sixteen years.


Tuesday night’s Vice-Presidential debate was had the lowest viewership of any previous such debate since the encounter between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman in 2000:

Tuesday night’s vice presidential debate drew a much smaller audience than the VP debates in 2012 and 2008.

About 37.2 million people tuned in to the nine television channels that carried the debate live, according to Nielsen.

An unknown number of others streamed the debate on the web in ways that aren’t counted by Nielsen.

No one expected the running mate debate to come anywhere close to last week’s Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton match-up. About 84 million tuned in to that debate via TV, making it the most-watched debate in American history.

But it may be considered disappointing that Tuesday’s Mike Pence-Tim Kaine debate did not match past VP totals.

The 2012 VP debate, between Joe Biden and Paul Ryan, averaged 51.4 million viewers.

The Biden-Sarah Palin debate in 2008 ranks as the most-watched VP debate ever, with 69.9 million viewers, largely attributed to curiosity about Palin.

The 2004 Dick Cheney-John Edwards match-up drew 43.5 million.

To find a lower-rated VP debate than Tuesday, you have to go back to 2000, when 28.5 million people watched Cheney and Joe Lieberman debate.

CNN media reporter Brian Stelter posted the comparable numbers on Twitter last night:

On some level, the lower viewership numbers aren’t entirely surprising. First of all, the fact that this was a clash of the running mates rather than the candidates at the top of the ticket was, in and of itself, reason enough why viewers would likely not be as interested in such a debate as they would be in an encounter between the candidates at the top of the ticket. The more interesting question, really, is why there was such a sharp drop-off in viewership from the three previous running mates debate. It’s understandable why the encounter between Joe Biden and Sarah Palin stands alone as the highest-rated of these debates in recent memory. By the time that debate came up on the calendar, Palin had become a figure of curiosity and interest, and the encounter between her and Biden had been hyped so much, that it was inevitable that large numbers of people would tune in to watch her debate. Similarly, I suppose that the idea of a debate between Dick Cheney and Joe Lieberman sounded so boring that people simply decided to skip it entirely. What was it, one wonders, about the prospect of a debate between Tim Kaine and Mike Pence that caused people who found debates between Dick Cheney and John Edwards, or Paul Ryan and Joe Biden, interesting to decide to find something better to do. Yes, what I said Monday afternoon about the Vice-Presidential debate not being very important was true, but it was also true of all the other debates listed above and those managed to bring in significantly more voters than Tuseday night’s affair.

One possibility, of course, is that voters are losing interest in election-related programming as they start to make up their minds about who they’ll be voting for. For example, it is typically the case that the second and third Presidential debates attract lower ratings than the initial debate. The difference this year, though, is the fact that the candidates are two people who draw an outsized amount of interest among the public to the point where people end up tuning in just to see what they’ll have to say to each other. Because of that, it’s possible that we’ll see less of a drop-off from the first debate than we have seen in the past. This creates both opportunities and dangers for both candidates. Opportunities in the sense that higher ratings mean that there’s more of an opportunity for candidates to connect with voters and attempt to turn the tide of the race, and dangers in the sense that a gaffe or mistake in one of the subsequent debates will have a much wider audience than it otherwise would have had. What impact all of that will have on the race as a whole is something only time can tell.

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. CSK says:

    I suspect the much lower viewership might have resulted from the fact that there was no particular possibility of anything “entertaining” happening during this debate. Neither Pence nor Kaine was going to freak out or melt down, and everyone knew that beforehand.

    Back in 2008, who knew in advance what Palin would do or say?

  2. Franklin says:

    I figure it had its lowest viewership because Doug Mataconis specifically told us to skip it.

  3. al-Alameda says:

    My scientific analysis:

    (1) I watched a Warriors’ pre-season basketball game.
    (2) I caught about 2 hours of the debate wrap up on CNN and MSNBC.

    I did the right thing.

  4. gVOR08 says:

    Kevin Drum has a piece this morning saying that what I thought was a poor performance by Kaine was in fact a plan. His mission was to throw Trump’s outrageous comments at Pence hoping to generate video clips. You’ll remember that Hillary had a 90 sec ad out before noon on the day after the debate. They’re apparently also all over social media. A lot more people are going to see the debate than watched the debate.

    I have this mental image of Admiral Ackbar in a big orange wig, “It’s a trap.” But Pence, turned off his targeting computer, trusted the dark side, and missed.

  5. MarkedMan says:

    FWIW, I’m normally not one to see seven dimensional chess and impart strategy where there is just coincidence or luck. But I honestly believe that the Clinton campaign sent Kaine in there with one objective: either get Pence to disown Trump’s comments or to double down on them. The Clinton campaign rolled out an ad 12 hours after the debate. And now Kaine is trying to provoke Trump against Pence. From TPM

    Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) on Thursday slammed his opponent Mike Pence for his performance in the vice presidential debate, saying that he threw running mate Donald Trump “under the bus.”

  6. Matt says:

    I saw the debate as a Pyrrhic victory for Pence and Clinton’s release of the campaign video 12 hours later confirmed that.