Democratic Primary Debate Audience Has Dwindled

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Presidential primary debates were more genteel not so long ago. Occasionally spirited but generally polite, they offered discussions of policy by candidates regurgitating well-rehearsed lines about honor and country.

Then Donald Trump ran for president, and while some Republicans blushed that they were losing their reputation as the party of ideas, no one could say the spectacle wasn’t entertaining. As Trump turned the debate stage into must-see TV, ratings spiked. According to Nielsen, the first debate in the 2016 election season drew 24 million viewers — making it not just the highest-rated presidential primary debate ever but one of the most watched cable events in history.

Democrats haven’t duplicated that same ratings magic this time around. The biggest audience was 18 million for the opening debate held in Miami last summer, and viewership has dropped steadily since, a point of glee for the president. “Very low ratings for the Democratic Debate last night,” Trump wrote after the first session of the second debate in Detroit, which drew just 8.7 million viewers. “They’re desperate for Trump!”

The Democratic National Committee would hardly agree, though the president’s name has been invoked so often at each of the debates that he almost seems present. The executives at the sponsoring news channels and networks may miss the president a little more. Trump was such a boon to viewership that, according to data from tracking firm mediaQuant, he received $4.96 billion in free media ahead of the 2016 election.

It stands to reason that a brash New Yorker who became famous for firing B-list celebrities on television would draw a bigger crowd than a stage limited to senators, governors and Rhodes scholars. Discussions about the finer points of “Medicare for All” do not have the same entertainment value as shouting matches about the size of human appendages.

This isn’t a problem, it is a statement of principle, insists DNC Chairman Tom Perez. His party’s debates, he says, are substantive and serious, unlike the showmanship that defined the GOP’s four years ago.

“We had differences on policy,” Perez said after the first debate. “Nobody was talking about hand size. Nobody was putting silly nicknames on people. It was all about policy issues. We agree on most everything, and those things that we have differences on, we talked about it passionately, respectfully, and then it’ll be up for the voters to decide.”

Conflict creates the kind of drama that drives ratings, but the Democratic primary candidates have largely tried to contrast themselves with the president. When things got a bit heated on the Miami stage, Kamala Harris made a point of toning things down.

“Hey, guys, you know what? America does not want to witness a food fight,” she said. “They want to know how we're going to put food on their table.”

That debate, the second of two nights in Miami, drew 10.7 million viewers, and the California senator has since dropped out of the race. But even before her exit, the field was heeding her advice. The last contest, held in Georgia, was more of a presidential forum than a debate as candidates pulled punches and took pains to compliment rather than attack one another. It had an audience of just 6.6 million.

Such viewership nonetheless dwarfs regularly scheduled cable programing. Sean Hannity of Fox News hosts the most-watched show on cable news channels with an average audience size of 3.1 million viewers per night. Compare that to “The Big Bang Theory,” the popular CBS sitcom that ended its 12-year run in May, which attracted an average weekly audience of 17.3 million.

Democrats are not likely to come close to that number. As the field of debate qualifiers has narrowed, the audience has diminished too.  Ratings watchers will be paying close attention Thursday night to see if that trend continues with the debate in Los Angeles. It will be broadcast on the PBS.

By contrast, Republicans — well, Trump — captured the attention of viewers and never let go. When he decided to skip a March 2016 debate in Salt Lake City, the event was canceled. And the first general election debate against Hillary Clinton drew 84 million viewers, topping the previous record set in 1980 when Ronald Reagan faced off against Jimmy Carter.

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