The field of Republican candidates vying for the White House has gradually dwindled, but the ratings for the party’s debates have remained historically high, thanks in part to the entertainment value of the current front-runner, former reality TV star Donald Trump.
The first Republican debate in August, when 10 candidates took the main stage in Cleveland in prime time after a forum among the remaining seven, drew a whopping 24 million viewers. Although debate viewership has cooled, audiences are still breaking records.
The Fox News debate March 3 from Detroit drew an audience of nearly 17 million, a staggering number compared with the 5.5 million who tuned in for the Democratic showdown Sunday in Flint, Michigan. The numbers also make the audiences for the 2012 Republican primary debates seem paltry. According to Adweek, the largest audience for a Republican debate that year was just over 7.1 million.
Fox announced Friday that the network’s live stream of the debate peaked at 1.49 million concurrent streams, making it the most-watched primary live-stream event ever.
The Republican debates have averaged about 16.2 million viewers, greater than the Democrats’ most-watched debate — the 15.8 million who tuned into the first debate, in October — and far ahead of the Democrats’ 9.2 million average viewership.
The Republican debates’ massive viewership also has proved the star power of Mr. Trump.
According to Nielsen ratings, the Jan. 28 debate on Fox News, which Mr. Trump opted to skip because of his feud with moderator Megyn Kelly, drew the second-smallest audience of the 11 debates so far — 12.5 million viewers from 9 to 11 p.m.
Mr. Trump later boasted on Twitter that his absence severely hurt Fox’s ratings. “They say that if I participated in last night’s Fox debate, they would have had 12 million more & would have broken the all time record,” he wrote.
Although Mr. Trump’s rally for veterans that day drew some attention away from the main debate stage, it wasn’t nearly as much as he touted.
Two of the cable channels that showed parts of Mr. Trump’s fundraising event, CNN and MSNBC, had about 2.7 million viewers combined, according to Nielsen. A plethora of smaller outlets also televised and streamed the Trump event, but no further viewership data are available.
Fox Business Network’s Jan. 14 debate drew the smallest audience with 11 million viewers. However, that number was still comfortably more than twice the Democrats’ smallest audience — the 4.5 million viewers for the January MSNBC debate.