A Ratings History of 3rd Presidential Debates

By A.J. Katz Comment

And down the stretch they go! The third and final presidential debate of the 2016 election cycle will take place tonight at the Thomas & Mack Center at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Chris Wallace moderates the debate, which is a first for Fox. While anchors from ABC, CBS, NBC and CNN have all moderated in the past, this is the first time the 20-year-old network has been included in the moderator pool.

Tonight’s debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will air on multiple networks with additional streaming options. Viewership for tonight’s debate is expected to up from the second debate of 2016, which had to go up against TV’s top-rated prime time program NBC Sunday Night Football. The second debate delivered 66.5 million viewers. That was down from the 84 million who watched the first debate, per Nielsen Media Research.

To be the most-watched third presidential debate of an election cycle, tonight’s extravaganza will have to top the 66.9 million viewers who tuned in to watch the Oct. 19, 1992 debate between President George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot on 4 networks: ABC, NBC, CBS and CNN. Here’s how other third debates have performed, going back to 1976 FordCarter.

  • Viewership for third presidential debates:

2012 Oct. 22:  59.2m viewers (Obama-Romney)
2008 Oct. 15: 56.5m viewers (Obama-McCain)
2004 Oct. 13: 51.2m viewers (Bush-Kerry)
2000 Oct. 17: 37.7m viewers (Gore-Bush)
1996  Only two debates
1992 Oct. 19: 66.9m viewers (Bush-Clinton-Perot)
1988 Only two debates
1984 Only two debates
1980 Only one debate
1976 Oct. 22: 62.7m viewers (Ford-Carter)