Presidential Debate TV Ratings by the Numbers

By A.J. Katz Comment

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will square off tonight at Hofstra University on Long Island for the first of three general election debates. Presidential debate No. 1 will be televised live at 9 p.m. ET tonight on at least 14 TV networks and even more streaming networks. It will almost certainly be the most-watched presidential debate ever.

The current record-holder, according to Nielsen, was the October 28, 1980 presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, which was moderated by Howard K. Smith and included Barbara Walters among the panelists. 80.6 million viewers across just three networks, ABC, CBS and NBC, watched. A whopping 58.9 percent of U.S. homes equipped with TVs were watching the debate that night, the second highest percentage in presidential debate history, and only behind the third presidential debate of the 1960 election race between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon, which attracted 61 percent of television-equipped U.S. households.

The first presidential debate of 2012 (Oct. 3, 2012) delivered 67.2 million viewers across 12 linear networks. ABC attracted the most total viewers of any English or Spanish language network that night (11.25 million).

It’s important to note that FOX and CBS haven’t aired presidential debates in the past due to MLB playoff games in October. Figures for the second Clinton-Dole debate in 1996 (October 16) and the third Barack ObamaMitt Romney debate in 2012 (October 22) don’t include FOX, the first Clinton-Bush-Perot debate in 1992 (October 11) doesn’t include CBS. Some NBC and FOX affiliates aired the first George W. BushAl Gore 2000 presidential debate on tape delay due to the playoffs.

There were no televised general election debates in 1964, 1968 or 1972. PBS and C-Span aired many of these debates, but they are not rated by Nielsen.

Presidential Debate Telecasts: 1960 – 2012

YEAR NETWORK DATE CANDIDATES RATING % Households (in millions) Total Viewers (in millions)
2012 12 Networks Oct. 3 (Debate #1) Obama – Romney 40.4 46.2 67.2
 2012 12 Networks Oct. 16 (Debate #2)   40 45.6 65.6
 2012 11 Networks Oct. 22 (Debate #3) 35.9 41.2 59.2
2008 13 Networks Sept. 26 (Debate #1) Obama – McCain 31.6 36.2 52.4
 2008 13 Networks Oct. 7 (Debate #2)   38.8 44.4 63.2
 2008 12 Networks Oct. 15**** (Debate #3)   35.0 40.0 56.5
2004 7 Networks Sept. 30 (Debate #1) Bush – Kerry 39.4 43.0 62.5
 2004 7 Networks Oct. 8 (Debate #2) 29.6 32.5 46.7
 2004  7 Networks Oct. 13**** (Debate #3) 32.6 36.3 51.2
2000 7 Networks Oct. 3*** Gore – Bush 31.7 32.4 46.6
2000 7 Networks Oct. 11**** 26.8 27.5 37.6
 2000 7 Networks Oct. 17 25.9 26.3 37.7
1996 5 Networks Oct. 6 Clinton – Dole 31.6 30.6 36.1
1996 5 Networks Oct. 16 * 26.1 25.3 36.3
1992 4 Networks Oct. 11 ** Bush – Clinton – Perot 38.3 35.7 62.4
1992 4 Networks Oct. 15 46.3 43.1 69.9
1992  4 Networks Oct. 19 45.2 42.1 66.9
1988 3 Networks Sept. 25 Bush – Dukakis 36.8 33.3 65.1
 1988  3 Networks Oct. 13 35.9 32.5 67.3
1984 3 Networks Oct. 7 Reagan – Mondale 45.3 38.5 65.1
 1984  3 Networks Oct. 21 46.0 39.1 67.3
1980 3 Networks Oct 28 Carter – Reagan 58.9 45.8 80.6
1976 3 Networks Sept. 23 Ford – Carter 53.5 38.0 69.7
 1976  3 Networks Oct. 6 52.4 37.3 63.9
 1976  3 Networks Oct. 22 47.8 34.0 62.7
1960 3 Networks Sept. 26 Nixon – Kennedy 59.5 28.1 N/A
 1960  3 Networks Oct. 7 59.1 27.9 N/A
 1960  3 Networks Oct. 13 61.0 28.8 N/A
 1960  3 Networks Oct. 21 57.8 27.3 N/A

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