The Presidential Debates Set Ratings Records in 2016

By A.J. Katz 

The results are in and shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who has been following this election: 2016 delivered the most viewers of any presidential debate cycle in U.S. TV history.

The three Hillary ClintonDonald Trump presidential debates and the Tim KaineMike Pence vice presidential debate delivered a total of 259 million viewers, per data from Nielsen Media Research. The 1992 debate cycle held the previous record, as a total of 250 million viewers tuned into the three George H. W. BushBill ClintonRoss Perot debates, and the Dan QuayleAl GoreJames Stockdale vice presidential debate.

Last Wednesday’s third and final debate of 2016 between Clinton and Trump brought in 71.6 million viewers, making it the third-most-watched debate ever, behind only Clinton-Trump I (84 million) and Jimmy CarterRonald Reagan on Oct. 28, 1980 (80.6 million).


Interest in cable news is as high as it’s ever been, and that trend showed up in 2016 debate viewership. A total of 91.7 million viewers watched the four debates across CNN, Fox News and MSNBC in 2016. That’s a 10.5 percent rise from the networks’ 2012 total of 83 million and a 3 percent increase over 2008 (89 million).

Why the improvement?

“Cable news wasn’t quite as partisan eight or 12 years ago as it is now, and each network is bringing an opinionated, devoted audience to these debates,” said Al Tompkins, senior faculty for broadcast and online at Poynter. “I think that’s why you have seen ratings for cable’s coverage of the debates through the roof.”

But how was Clinton-Trump 2016 able to attract so many viewers considering all the other programming options out there?

“One of the major ingredients here is uncertainty and unpredictability,” Tompkins said. “In previous elections, you think you probably know where the race is and what the people are going to do. That’s not the case here, and that makes for compelling TV.”

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