UPDATED with final stats: According to final Nielsen ratings, CNN’s Democratic debate averaged 15.8 million total viewers last night. That would make it the sixth-biggest nonsports cable telecast in history. In the 25-54 demographic, the faceoff among White House hopefuls averaged 5 million — the most ever for a Dem debate. CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield bragged on-air this morning that her network’s debate drew “a higher number than the season premiere of The Walking Dead.”
The debate’s opening and closing moments, when the candidates deliver their prepared blah, blah were coded separately from the actual debate, and each block of time clocked 12.7M viewers.
The previous top-rated Democratic presidential primary debate on cable news was CNN’s Los Angeles debate on January 31, 2008, which averaged 8.3 million viewers. On broadcast, the highest rated was ABC’s Philadelphia faceoff on April 16, 2008, averaging 10.7 million viewers.
We’ll never know how many of these 15.8M viewers CNN owes to GOP frontrunner Donald Trump having announced yesterday morning he had decided t0 live tweet the Dem debate, giving his fans reason to hate-watch. Around the time word of CNN’s record ratings was getting out today, Trump tweeted:
Earlier this morning, Trump praised Hillary Clinton’s debate performance, phoning in to both ABC News and MSNBC’s Morning Joe to say Clinton “did what she had to do” and that her closest competitor Bernie Sanders made a big mistake for the “sake of a soundbite” when he said of Clinton’s email bruhaha that America is “sick and tired of hearing about her damned emails” for which Clinton thanked him on stage and shook his hand.
Very early morning stats had indicated last night’s debate between front-runner Hillary Clinton, Google hero/Dem socialist Bernie Sanders and the Three Other Guys likely logged numbers on par with that most-watched Dem debate in the 2008 presidential election cycle. These very early stats go a long way to explain why CNN had begged and pleaded to get VPOTUS Joe Biden onstage for the 2 1/2 hour exchange.
Last night’s debate, while a whopper for CNN and the Dems, still falls short of the 22.9 million viewers who’d watched CNN’s three-hour-plus GOP debate in mid September. That event set two records: biggest audience in CNN’s 30-year history and the longest presidential debate ever. And that debate’s overall crowd did not match the 24M who’d sat glued to the first GOP face-off in August on Fox News Channel, which is that network’s biggest audience ever. The FNC crowd also is the biggest nonsports audience ever for cable news (CNN’s GOP debate stat is No. 2).
Who knows how many more viewers would have tuned in last night had Biden made a Loretta Young entrance on the stage in Las Vegas to add much-needed drama. That thought of what might have been, ratings-wise, might explain in part why CNN on-air talent this morning chastised Biden for being a no show.
“He got information that said if he was planning to get into this race because Clinton was damaged goods, he got information [after last night’s debate] saying that’s not a reason to get into this race,” contributor David Chalian rued on CNN this morning during a whither-goest-Biden segment. “I don’t know that would be his rationale for jumping into a presidential race. I don’t think it would be a wise rationale on his part, but that is the information he was provided last night. His aides [say] the debate last night will not impact his decision making. But I don’t see how it can’t.”
“It really comes down to the donors, whether they felt comfortable with Hillary Clinton’s performance last night,” chimed in CNN national political reporter Maeve Reston. “I think a lot of them did feel comfortable. She met the bar she needed to meet. So Biden – it’ pretty late in the game,” she warned him directly.
“Tick, tick, tick,” CNN’s John Berman scolded at Biden.