HomeNewsTV Ratings: How Does First 2020 Debate Compare to Trump-Clinton’s First Debate in 2016?

TV Ratings: How Does First 2020 Debate Compare to Trump-Clinton’s First Debate in 2016?

by Jennifer Shea
(Photo by Morry Gash-Pool/Getty Images)

The TV numbers are in, and Tuesday’s presidential debate failed to break the records set by President Trump’s 2016 faceoff against Hillary Clinton.

Last night’s debate between President Trump and Joe Biden drew nearly 29 million viewers, TV Line reported. But that initial figure represents only viewers of the four major broadcast networks – it doesn’t include cable TV. The final Nielsen ratings are due Wednesday night.

That’s in comparison to 42.7 million viewers of the major broadcast networks for the first Trump-Clinton debate. With cable, the number rose to 84 million viewers in total.

TV debate memories

The first Trump-Clinton debate broke records for total viewership. It boasted plenty of memorable moments. For example, Trump and Clinton sparred over the Clinton administration’s role in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which led to a loss of manufacturing jobs. And when Clinton said, “I’m going to be blamed for everything that’s ever happened,” Trump responded, “Why not?” 

Last night’s debate had the potential to be more of a turning point than your average debate, Mike Murphy, a Republican strategist and Trump critic who co-directs USC’s Center for the Political Future, told the Los Angeles Times.

Research by political scientists suggests that general-election debates rarely have a lasting impact. This debate gave Biden an opportunity to show he has no impairments, as the Trump campaign has repeatedly implied, Murphy said.

Historical turning points

Some previous debates altered the course of those presidential campaigns. Take the 1960 debate between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. The famously telegenic Kennedy went on to beat Nixon. Or consider the 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s quip, “There you go again” drew laughs and coined a catchphrase that helped clinch the election. 

It’s yet to be clear whether the first Trump-Biden debate will make history as a campaign-changing moment. But one thing’s for sure: if ratings are any guide, Americans are just not as tuned in at this point as they were the last time around.