Donald Trump and Joe Biden clashed for the final time on live television in last night’s second presidential debate, which by all accounts was somewhat more watchable than the first. However, it ended up drawing a much smaller audience than its late September predecessor.
Last night’s debate garnered 63 million viewers according to Nielsen, which represents roughly a 14% (or 10 million viewer) dip from the first debate, which delivered 73.1 million viewers. For further comparison, the final debate of the 2016 election cycle ended up with 71.5 million viewers.
That final figure covers every single network that carried the debate, namely ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC, Telemundo, Univision, PBS, CNNe, Fox Business Network, Newsmax, Newsy, Vice and WGNA.
Looking at the networks individually, Fox News was top of the pile once again, with 15.4 million total viewers. ABC came second with 11.2 million, followed by NBC with 10.6 million. CNN topped cable news rival MSNBC by 7.5 million viewers to 6.9 million. Meanwhile CBS finished in last place for the second debate running, drawing 5.7 million. Fox aired “Thursday Night Football” rather than the debate.
In the end, neither Trump-Biden contest got close to the first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton four years ago, which was watched by a total of 84 million people. That still represents the largest audience ever for a presidential debate.
Prior to the 2016 election cycle, the most watched debate was the sole 1980 sparring session between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, which drew around 81 million pairs of eyeballs. In the 2012 cycle, the most watched debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney drew just over 67 million total viewers.
As for the content of last night’s debate, it was largely more coherent than the first, partly because the candidates’ microphones were muted when the other was speaking, which allowed them to speak largely uninterrupted. Once again, the two rivals clashed on key issues such as the COVID-19 pandemic, race and climate change.
The debate was moderated by NBC News’ Kristen Welker, and took place at at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.