The first head-to-head showdown of Democratic front-runners Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders didn’t make much of a ratings impact on Thursday, as MSNBC’s two-hour event — a late addition to the schedule — racked up the lowest numbers for any debate this election cycle.
According to preliminary Nielsen estimates, Thursday’s debate from New Hampshire averaged roughly 4.5 million viewers from 9 to 11 p.m. ET, including about 1.2 million viewers in the key news demo of adults 25-54. The most recent Democratic debate prior to last night, Jan. 17 on NBC, averaged 10.16 million viewers and 3.2 million adults 25-54, and the previous low for the Dems came with a Saturday night debate on ABC shortly before Christmas (8.03 million overall, 1.97 million adults 25-54).
MSNBC was the clear ratings leader among the cable news networks from 9 to 11 p.m., though it lagged behind each of the major broadcast networks. Fox News was second among the cable newsies (2.0 million viewers, including 399,000 adults 25-54) and CNN a distant third (712,000 viewers, including 210,000 adults 25-54), according to the Nielsen prelims.
Last night’s event, moderated by Chuck Todd and Rachel Maddow, was a late arrival on the debate schedule and only came together just over a week ago. It also wasn’t officially sanctioned by the Democratic National Committee until Tuesday of this week when both Clinton and Sanders agreed to three other debates, including one in Flint, Michigan on March 6.
The first Republican debate of the 2016 presidential primary season drew a whopping 24 million viewers last August on Fox News Channel — a cable record for a non-sports program — and viewership remained very high a month later when more than 23 million watched the second GOP gathering on CNN. Subsequent debates
On the Democratic side, ratings peaked with the first debate in October on CNN. That debate from Las Vegas drew 15.79 million viewers, including about 5 million in the demo.