Don't expect Trump-sized ratings for Democratic debates

Don't expect Trump-sized ratings for Democratic debates
© Getty Images

Ten Democratic candidates take center stage on NBC on Wednesday night for the first of two primary debates of the season. 

But how will the debates fare from a ratings perspective? 

Let’s look back at the numbers of the first primary debates of the past three presidential election cycles as a gauge. 


Obviously, 2015 was the high point given the Trump factor. Trump’s star power helped propel Fox News to an audience of more than 24 million in August 2015 for the first GOP debate of that election season. The number is even more remarkable when considering that August is annually the least-watched month for television, given summer vacation time for many Americans. A debate garnering over 24 million viewers for a primary debate 15 months before Election Day is much more eye-popping.  

On the Democratic side in 2015, the party opted to hold its first presidential debate two months after the GOP August kickoff in Cleveland. CNN held rights to the event featuring Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonGeorge Takei: US has hit a new low under Trump Democrats slam Puerto Rico governor over 'shameful' comments, back protesters Matt Gaetz ahead of Mueller hearing: 'We are going to reelect the president' MORE, Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersBullock: I would not have endorsed health care for undocumented immigrants on debate stage Harris faces pressure to define policy proposals Biden campaign rips 'Medicare for All,' calls on Dems to protect Affordable Care Act MORE (I-Vt.) and three other forgetful candidates, which delivered 15.3 million viewers —9 million less than the GOP offering on Fox. 

Going back to 2011, the numbers noticeably drop from 2015 levels: For the first primary debate in May 2011, just 3.53 million viewers tuned into Fox News to see the likes of Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyDemocrats should rise above and unify against Trump's tweets Trump steps up attacks on 'Squad' after post-rally furor Media cried wolf: Calling every Republican a racist lost its bite MORE, Herman CainHerman CainTrump puts hopes for Fed revolution on unconventional candidate Acosta on shaky ground as GOP support wavers The Hill's Morning Report - Sanders falters as rivals rise MORE, Rick PerryJames (Rick) Richard PerryAmazon taps Trump ally to lobby amid Pentagon cloud-computing contract fight How to reduce Europe's dependence on Russian energy Senior Trump administration official to leave post next week MORE and Newt GingrichNewton (Newt) Leroy GingrichMORE battle it out for the GOP nomination and the right to take on then-President Obama. That’s 21 million less than in 2015. 

In 2007, the numbers were even lower, with MSNBC drawing just 2.26 million viewers for the first Democratic debate in April 2007. On the Republican side, only 2.19 million tuned in to ABC for the first GOP debate in Aug. 2007. 

Given the trend from 2007 to 2015, you might think the numbers are trending upward for 2019. Not even close.  


After a Trump bump for two years since his stunning win in November 2016, all trends point down.

As reported by Axios per traffic analytics company, "the number of page views for articles about Trump has dropped 29% between his first 6 months in office and the most recent 6 months as the shock factor around his presidency wears off." 

That's amazing: Despite a perpetually chaotic news cycle, nearly one-third of readers have found other things to absorb. 

Trump's tweets have also lost much of their ability to shock or awe, with his tweets getting half the engagement numbers they did when he took office in January 2017. 

But to get a decent preview of how NBC may perform from a ratings perspective on Wednesday night, let's look at last weekend's South Carolina Democratic convention. It offered up speeches and interviews with 21 of the 25 Democrats running for president, including top-tier candidates Sanders, Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenHarris faces pressure to define policy proposals Biden campaign rips 'Medicare for All,' calls on Dems to protect Affordable Care Act Harris voices support for Puerto Rico protesters: 'I stand with them' MORE, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenHarris faces pressure to define policy proposals Harris voices support for Puerto Rico protesters: 'I stand with them' Democrats slam Puerto Rico governor over 'shameful' comments, back protesters MORE (D-Mass.).
In an unprecedented move, MSNBC obtained special exclusive coverage of the convention from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. ET. According to Nielsen Media Research, only 598,000 total viewers tuned in during that time, including only 70,000 in the key 25-54 demographic advertisers covet most. 

What makes those numbers likely troubling for the network is that they were down double digits when compared to the same day one year ago, which only offered up regular weekend programming.

If the South Carolina convention is any indication, the NBC numbers for Wednesday night in Miami may not remotely approach the 24 million viewers of the first GOP debate of the last election season, or even the 15 million that tuned in to CNN four years earlier.

Some in media saw the 2020 election as a lifeline for viewership. Media greatly benefited from the Trump bump that began four years ago when he announced his candidacy after a ride down an escalator in Trump Tower. But fatigue has officially set in.

And the Democrats don't have an effective, compelling foil despite having 25 people to choose from. 

Debates were seen as sure things to draw massive audiences in 2015-2016.  

Not this time around.

Joe Concha is a media reporter for The Hill and co-host of "WOR Tonight with Joe Concha" weeknights on 710-WOR in New York. Follow Concha on Twitter @JoeConchaTV.