Inside Giant GOP Ratings: Donald Trump Debates Topping Last Election by Threefold

Mitt_Romney_Trump_Split - Getty - H 2016
Getty Images

Mitt_Romney_Trump_Split - Getty - H 2016

The Republican face-offs continue to be the most-watched in history, driving primetime growth for most of cable news.

The GOP debates leading up to the 2016 presidential election are the most-watched in history — averaging more than three times as many viewers as the last election. (See evidence in the below chart.)

Face-offs between actual party nominees, which simulcast on multiple broadcast and cable networks every fourth fall, certainly draw a bigger audience. But that's on the eve of voting. Interest in the wide playing field before and during primaries has never been nearly this substantial or enduring, especially where the Republicans (and Donald Trump) are concerned.

The highs of that Aug. 6 debate on Fox News Channel — 24 million, lest you forget — have not been duplicated, but the ratings have been remarkably stable. The last GOP face-off on March 2 featured a comparatively scant four candidates and still hit a three-month audience high of nearly 17 million. The difference between the early debates of this campaign and the last one is staggering and almost wholly unique to the Republicans. Though the Oct. 10 CNN debate certainly popped, the rest of the DNC face-offs have mirrored the ratings scene when that party last had an open field in 2008.

Interest is obviously not limited to the debates. Persistent primetime coverage, not to mention the veritable arms race to book town halls with candidates on both side of the spectrum, have had a generally positive effect. Fox News Channel is seeing its most-watched cycle to date, averaging 2.4 million viewers in primetime since the top of the year. In the key news demo of adults 25-54, it's up from 2012, when Mitt Romney emerged as the early frontrunner, and nearly on par with 2008. During the same period, No. 2 CNN has doubled its showing from 2012 on both fronts to nearly match its 2008 numbers. (MSNBC is the only network down from both 2008 and 2012, though it has hosted no debates and had comparatively little time with Republicans.)

So as the GOP debates near the end — only two remain, with the penultimate airing Thursday night on CNN — now is an opportune time to look at exactly how big they have been. Eleven events in, the debates are averaging more than three times the audience of the 2011-12 cycle.

Source: Nielsen Media