Tonight, President Donald Trump and former vp Joe Biden are going at it for the first of three presidential debates, sanctioned by the Commission on Presidential Debates. The first debate of 2020 is taking place at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, and Fox News Sunday anchor Chris Wallace is the moderator.
Wallace moderated the most recent presidential debate as well, debate No. 3 between Hillary Clinton and Trump in 2016.
With the former vice president up in the polls, how will the incumbent react this evening? With President Trump, one can always expect the unexpected.
If you’re not sure where to watch tonight’s event, we’ve got it all laid out for you … and then some.
It’s worth noting that ABC News contributor Chris Christie led President Trump’s debate prep, and he will be part of the network’s coverage tonight.
Programming note: Chris Christie, who is helping run Trump’s debate prep, will be an on-air analyst tonight on @ABC News.
— Michael M. Grynbaum (@grynbaum) September 29, 2020
Roughly 84 million total viewers watched the first presidential debate of 2016 across 13 Nielsen-measured English- and Spanish-language networks, a record. That 84 million figure does not include viewers watching digital platforms, or on unrated networks like Bloomberg or C-SPAN.
It’s doubtful tonight’s debate can match that. Debate No. 1 of 2016 was an event without an incumbent, and featured an outspoken, celebrity businessman in Trump versus one of the best-known women on the planet, Clinton, going head-to-head for the first time.
The Commission on Presidential Debates is a bit more bullish (granted, the chairman is taking digital into account)
Briefing Debate audience in the hall, Chairman Frank Fahrenkopf says estimated audience for tonight’s debate on all platforms totals 120-million. Only 900 watching in the hall. pic.twitter.com/Zm08gl3a8I
— Mark Knoller (@markknoller) September 30, 2020
Below, a presidential debate ratings history.
Presidential Debate Telecasts: 1960 – 2016
|YEAR||NETWORK||DATE||CANDIDATES||RATING %||Households (in millions)||Total Viewers (in millions)|
|2020||Sept. 29 (Debate #1)||Trump – Biden||TBD||TBD||TBD|
|2016||14 Networks||Sept. 26 (Debate #1)||H. Clinton – Trump||47.6||56.4||84.0|
|2016||11 Networks||Oct. 9 (Debate #2)||37.1||44||66.55|
|2016||13 Networks||Oct. 19 (Debate #3)||41.7||49.5||71.6|
|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|
Source: Nielsen Live+Same Day. Viewing Prior to 2006 is Live.
Ari Melber is ready to rock:
Your ideal drink or snack to go with this debate?
— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) September 29, 2020
As is Chris Wallace, although I’m not sure what happened here:
And here come the reviews, fast and some furious. The consensus early on seems to be that Wallace is having a tough time controlling these two candidates.
Chris Wallace in total control!
— Josh (@Tyrangiel) September 30, 2020
Chris Wallace failing at his job as a moderator. Just a mess. And we’re 13 mins in.
— Soledad O’Brien (@soledadobrien) September 30, 2020
— Gretchen Carlson (@GretchenCarlson) September 30, 2020
Chris Wallace: “Mr. President – I am the moderator of this debate and I’d like to be able to finish my question.” #Debates2020
— Katie Couric (@katiecouric) September 30, 2020
We’re 10 minutes into the debate – Biden has not been able to finish a complete sentence without getting interrupted by President Trump. #Debates2020
— Katie Couric (@katiecouric) September 30, 2020
What a moment.
Chris Wallace: You have not come up with a comprehensive plan to replace the ACA and you “largely symbolic” EO. What is the Trump healthcare plan?
Trump: I guess I am debating you not him.
Joe Biden audibly laughs.
— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) September 30, 2020
.@realDonaldTrump is a lot whole of interrupting early on.
— Jesse McKinley (@jessemckinley) September 30, 2020
There’s not enough booze in my cabinet if the interruptions continue 🤬 https://t.co/yTvEeU5ToF
— Dave Briggs (@davebriggstv) September 30, 2020
Lots of interruptions so far.
I think the most quotable line from tonight may well end up being: “I am the moderator of this debate, let me ask my question”
— Susan Glasser (@sbg1) September 30, 2020
What is Chris Wallace doing? He has no control over this debate. He asks a question and lets Trump continue yelling. This is a disgrace.
— Joe Scarborough (@JoeNBC) September 30, 2020
Sure there’s 45 mins left but I’m fairly certain this debate hasn’t persuaded literally a single swing voter. Not one. Not. One. Anywhere. In. America.
— Craig Melvin (@craigmelvin) September 30, 2020
Are we really gonna do this two more times? (In addition to VP debate). Asking for a friend….
— Paula Reid (@PaulaReidCBS) September 30, 2020
“If I’ve done my job right, at the end of the night, people will say, ‘That was a great debate, who was the moderator?'”
That’s what Chris Wallace said a couple of days ago.
— Brian Stelter (@brianstelter) September 30, 2020
Colleagues of Wallace’s slam him:
Looks like 2 v1 at times tonight
— Brian Kilmeade (@kilmeade) September 30, 2020
Trump is debating the moderator and Biden.
— Laura Ingraham (@IngrahamAngle) September 30, 2020
However, not everyone wants to pile on the Fox News Sunday anchor:
Kudos to Chris Wallace for being able to do this tonight while not cursing.
— Jedediah Bila (@JedediahBila) September 30, 2020
As someone who made a living sitting between 2 men yelling at each other on TV.. trying to get them to shut up or answer a question.. I’m feeling for Chris Wallace. Not as easy as you think.
— Dana Jacobson (@danajacobson) September 30, 2020
Good for Chris Wallace for asking serious and well-researched questions about the climate crisis in tonight’s debate. Millions of Americans are feeling the impacts today. Wallace has good news judgment, professional courage and INTEGRITY.
— Al Gore (@algore) September 30, 2020
Not to be too contrarian. But what is Wallace supposed to do here? Trump is just speaking over everything.
— Sam Stein (@samstein) September 30, 2020
Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan wrote:
Although some media observers were quick to trash the veteran broadcaster, that may have been unfair. It’s hard to know what he — or anyone — could have done, given President Trump’s refusal to abide by the rules or observe even a modicum of decorum.
The 90-minute debate fell, almost immediately, into chaos and cross-talking, not because Wallace isn’t a capable broadcast interviewer but because Trump was out of control.
With 1/2 hr to go, here is bottom line: @realDonaldTrump has been doing everything he can to rattle and cause a @JoeBiden breakdown. While some of Biden responses are slow, Trump has not achieved that goal. Race remains unchanged.
— Michael Smerconish (@smerconish) September 30, 2020
Trump’s entire tactic is to overwhelm the debate – interrupt opponent, interrupt moderator, question opponent like he’s the moderator, annotate opponent’s answers in real time like its Mystery Science Theater.
— Ari Melber (@AriMelber) September 30, 2020
The postgame analysis from cable and broadcast news is that Wallace couldn’t control the proceedings, and that this particular debate won’t change anyone’s minds.
“Clearly, this was the most chaotic presidential debate I’ve ever seen, and I suspect most of you, if not all of you, have ever seen,” said Wolf Blitzer. “It will certainly raise a lot questions about a future presidential debate between these two candidates. But we shall see.”
Jake Tapper, never one to mince words, called it “the worst debate I have ever seen,” adding, “It wasn’t even a debate, it was a disgrace, and it’s primarily because of President Trump.”
“That was a shitshow,” said Dana Bash (gotta love cable!)
CNN contributor Rick Santorum said that Wallace “actually did a pretty good job of shutting him [Trump] down,” and made the case that the Fox Newser probably didn’t expect what he would have to deal with going in.
ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, typically more measured, agreed with Tapper:
George Stephanopoulos calling it 30 seconds after: “That was the worst presidential debate I’ve ever seen.” #Debates2020
— David Griner (@griner) September 30, 2020
Speaking of ABC News, with Chris Christie sitting in the same room, ABC News contributor Yvette Simpson called it “an unmitigated disaster … the people who lose are the American people.” ABC News special contributor Matthew Dowd beamed in, and used similar language, adding that people living in foreign countries are “embarrassed.”
Martha Raddatz added, Chris Wallace tried, but it was “mud wrestling in the middle of a pandemic.”
Christie said that the problems the president had tonight “can potentially be fixed.” Christie attacked Biden, but said that Trump was “too hot.”
Over at NBC, Lester Holt said, “If hearing that this debate is over was music to your ears, you may not be alone,” adding, “What could have been a low point in American political discourse, certainly in any modern debate we’ve seen, just took place over an hour and a half.”
Savannah Guthrie added, “You can’t pretend that this was a normal debate, a normal example of American democracy at work, a normal tussle between foes. This was different. This was an all-out grudge match. It was undignified at many times. It was cringeworthy at many times.”
CBS News political analyst John Dickerson: “When the stakes were that high, the debate couldn’t have been lower, and it was not an equal opportunity experience. … And they are looking to these two gentlemen to take the country over in the midst of this period of jaggedness, and the president came, it seemed, with just a sawtooth.”
MSNBC’s Brian Williams: “What a dark event we have just witnessed. A tip of the hat to Cormack McCarthy when we say ‘If that wasn’t a mess, it will do until the mess gets here.'”
Fox News’ Bret Baier and Martha MacCallum seemed a bit more subdued than folks on other networks. “You wonder if America maybe lost on the substance of the heart of the issues and whether they really got to them over some of that back and forth,” said Baier.
“It was a tumultuous back-and-forth, no holds barred. They both dove in really hard, and I think obviously, there was a ton of talking over each other,” responded MacCallum.
Sean Hannity had a different take. Hosting his program in the 11 p.m. hour from the site of the debate, he remarked, “The extremely weak, the frail, the confused, kind of angry Joe Biden just got steamrolled by President Trump.”
Hannity praised Trump, as did former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders; however, Fox News contributor Ari Fleischer wasn’t as impressed with either candidate, saying, “Sean, I’ve got to say, these shouldn’t be gladiators and this shouldn’t be a food fight. This was a train wreck tonight. Both candidates. Too much back and forth, and it’s just not good for the country. There may be people who like to have this thing for the entertainment value … this was way over the top tonight.”
Hannity responded by saying he personally “likes a fight,” and that he “likes real,” and claimed “the American people like real too.”
MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough said as part of his postmortem: “I understand that Chris Wallace, last night, Willie [Geist], was thrown into the middle of something that no debate moderator has ever been thrown in before. And while it was extraordinarily frustrating, I think all of us need to walk a mile in his shoes before the morning after saying, well, he could have done this, he could have done that.”
*UPDATE (3 p.m. ET, Wednesday): The CPD released a statement this afternoon, “Additional structure will be added to the format of the remaining debates to ensure a more orderly discussion of the issues.”
— Gabriel Debenedetti (@gdebenedetti) September 30, 2020