CNN’s debate in Las Vegas was the most watched Democratic Party debate in television history. With an estimated 15.3 million viewers, the viewership easily eclipsed the previous record set in 2008.
A 2008 ABC debate, which pitted Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton against one another in the midst of a fiercely competitive race, drew a television audience of 10.7 million. Tuesday’s night’s debate shattered that record, attracting 43 percent more viewers than the Obama-Clinton 2008 showdown.
Although the Democratic debate did not register as many viewers as the crowded 2016 GOP debates that featured reality TV star, Donald Trump, it nevertheless exceeded pre-debate expectations. Debate watchers were rewarded with candidates providing mostly cogent answers to questions about policy, in sharp contrast to the mostly substance-less performances that took center stage at the two Republican debates.
Although the TV audience for the Democratic debate was smaller than the corresponding TV audience for the GOP debates, the Democratic debate had a larger peak audience live streaming the debate online. CNN’s live stream peaked at 980,000 concurrent streams at 10:20 PM Eastern time. The September 16th Republican debate peaked at 921,000 simultaneous live streams.
The popularity of the televised debates, over a year prior to the general election, suggests that the American people are getting engaged in the political process early for the 2016 election cycle. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’ candidacy has brought energy and a competitiveness to the race that would otherwise have been missing. Tuesday night’s debate gave Democratic primary voters their first opportunity to watch Sanders and Clinton speak on the same stage together.
In the national spotlight, both major candidates shined. While pundits and bloggers will argue for the next several days, about whether Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders “won” the debate, the truth is they both did well. The real winners on Tuesday night were the 15.3 million people who watched the debate. Those viewers had an opportunity to watch candidates engage one another on issues of substance, rather than attacking each other with childish taunts. When Clinton and Sanders meet again, hopefully even more Americans will tune in, because what they each have to say is worth hearing.