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Why Did So Many People Watch the GOP Debate?

Thursday night’s GOP primary debate in Cleveland was not only the most watched presidential primary debate ever, it was “the most watched cable news program” in history, with 24 million viewers tuning in, according to AdWeekThis compares to 3.3 million viewers for the first Republican debate in 2012, and 2.1 million for the first Republican debate of 2008.

The obvious explanation for this extraordinary number of viewers is of course the red-haired celebrity who stood at the center of stage. But the Donald alone probably cannot account for the huge audience—after all, 6.1 million people watched the minor league GOP debate, featuring the lower-rated contenders, at 5 p.m. To repeat: almost three times as many people watched an event featuring candidates like Jim Gilmore and George Pataki in 2015 than watched an event featuring John McCain and Mitt Romney in 2007.

One reason for the tremendous interest was probably that Fox News put on a different kind of event from anything we have seen before. This was “the first 21st century Presidential debate“—more than its predecessors, it favored sharp questions and pithy answers, and emphasized style as well as policy substance. Candidates had to be savvy as well as theatrical, and embrace the reality television format. This is the direction our politics is heading, like it or not—and it may in fact be quite successful at boosting political engagement.

Indeed, given the magnitude of the increase in audience size, it is also hard to avoid the conclusion that people are simply more excited about politics, and the young, diverse, and unpredictable Republican field in particular—perhaps partly as a result of the stylistic change described above. We have been treated to countless stories over the years about how young people are politically disengaged, and contaminating the rest of the country with their apathy. But according to data from CNN, the debate audience hardly resembled the retirement community that is Fox News’ staple—”of the 24 million viewers, 7.9 million were in the key advertising demographic of 25 to 54 year olds.”

The debate numbers are a good signal for political engagement. It will be interesting to see if the candidates can keep them up.

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  • Kevin

    I don’t think the format is responsible for the ratings. People tuning it did not generally know what it would be. Now, if subsequent debates announce they will use a similar format and also get high (or higher) ratings then we could say the new format is helping drive (or sustain) the ratings.

    So what might the causes be? Interest in Trump? Almost certainly at least some of it was driven by this. But I also think it shows a hunger for new political leadership to address festering problems – principally a decade of very low growth in employment and wages and a feeling that it’s not getting better. Further the candidates were not known quantities – they generally weren’t people whose political views and style were known among the voters. Thus the voters wanted to see if they saw anything indicating there might be someone who could address these and other problems. The fact that Hillary is both a known commodity and dominates the Democratic side is also pushing interest/curiosity towards the GOP field. Whether they found that is too early to know.

  • FriendlyGoat

    1) Trump
    2) Hullabaloo over who would “make the cut”
    3) Interest from Obama haters on who they can get to beat the next Democrat
    4) Interest from liberals concerning how nutty the “right” is becoming

    • Andrew Allison

      It’s all about Trump. 2-5 are the usual mindless “progressive” talking points, I know that you are smart enough to recognize that it’s all theater until a candidate is chosen. Trump and Sanders are political phenomena which deserve more serious thought.

      • FriendlyGoat

        Both Trump and Sanders are going to get more serious thought. Sanders probably can’t be nominated, of course, but Trump probably can be. The GOP worriers think they have Mr. Trump in a new snare with today’s Megyn Kelly flap, and my guess is he makes them look like monkeys again very soon.

        • Boritz

          ” a great number of people on the right…”

          True. Especially the camp that insisted McCain and Romney were the only possible candidates and are now insisting on Jeb with the same unshakable faith in their own judgment.

          • FriendlyGoat

            One reason why GOP operatives may be worried about running Mr. Trump is that their church-issue voters likely would not be doing hand-springs about him. He claims he has “evolved” away from choice, but those who REALLY want a Santorum or Huckabee or Carson are going to be lukewarm to Trump. I personally think that getting some of the church-issue voters to take a November nap would be a great idea, however, because since Reagan they have generally been resembling Mr. Magoo by mostly enabling high-end tax cuts without noticing that they aren’t doing much of anything except that.

          • Suzyqpie

            Democrats have suffered devastating losses at all levels of government since Obama was inaugurated in 2009 including, 69 House Seats, 13 Senate Seats, 901 State Legislative Seats, 30 State Legislative Chambers, and 11 Governorships. Maybe people tuned in to see the field which will be continuing the slaughter of Democrat politicians. A lot of the jobs 0bama saved or created were for Republicans….LOL….

          • FriendlyGoat

            Nah, they tuned in to see Donald Trump either crash his car on the racetrack or run over some other racers. I’m of the opinion he did more of the latter than the former.

  • Pete

    Trump is THE reason the debate got such high ratings. Period.

  • JR

    I watched the debates because I wanted to see which one of these people will have the best chance to beat Hillary. i think Rubio did very well for himself. I think Rubio/Tim Scott or Rubio/Suzanna Martinez tickets will be very tough. Jeb didn’t impress. Rand Paul will do more good as a legislator. Overall, I was impressed. Aside from Trump circus, everyone came out with real ideas, and real thoughts. If I were a Hillary staffer, I’d be nervous. The Queen Herself is definitely the worst retail politician of 2016, and it is not even close.

    • Harry Heller

      Enough with your “racial virtue signaling” cuckservatism! Only nonwhites can now get elected? A Rubio/Martinez ticket would go down to one of the greatest defeats in US history. Although I would prefer that ticket to any Democratic one on its own terms, if the Stupid Party voters have the nerve to “Hispander” to that extent, I (and several million other pro-white-interests conservatives) will sit the election out – and that will hand it to Hillary. There had better be at least one white on the ticket (given that routinely 90-95% of all GOP votes come from whites).

      • JR

        Thank you for a well reasoned response. but please leave the racial dog whistles to the Democrats.

        • Harry Heller

          I state a plain fact. There are several qualified nonwhites to SHARE a GOP ticket with a white man, but two nonwhites ain’t gonna fly for a sizable segment of GOP voters, especially not after Obama. I would love to see Ted Cruz get the nod, but he (and Rubio) are too callow. Either could be the Hispanic VP. Another thing I think people like about Trump is simply his age and experience, which strange as it sounds, lends him a certain gravitas. The “senior” white men, like Bush and Kasich and Huckabee, are unacceptably RINO-squishy for real conservatives like me. Actually, the whole field is lousy as far as I’m concerned – either too liberal – Bush, Kasich, Huckabee, Graham, Patacki, Christie; too young and inexperienced – Cruz, Rubio, Walker, Jindal; too novice – Carson, Trump, Fiorina; too untraditional and inexperienced – Paul. In some ways the most natural candidate is Perry, but he is too unfocused, uncharismatic, and plodding (and liberal, imo).

          Contrary to GOP propaganda, I think the field, despite its alleged “depth”, is actually rather disappointing. There is no clear Reagan type. Some combo of Trump, Cruz, Walker, Fiorina and Carson is my preference, although I still think it will be Bush/Walker in the end.

          • JR

            Rubio is the most purely talented politician of the bunch. Suzanna Martinez is a Republican in a deep blue NM. She knows how to make conservative decisions sound compassionate. That is not a skill too many other possess. Tim Scott is a very eloquent speaker, certainly more so than Chris Christie. I want winners. I want to win. You want Rubio/Walker? I’m OK with that. I want people who are proven, disciplined winners with political gifts that enable them to win over others with their seriousness, earnestness, ability to connect, what-the-#$@@#-ever. I’m a Libertarian, so I want two best possible candidates, regardless of their chromosome composition or skin hue. Like I said, I leave racial sub-divisions to Democrats. That way lies ruin. I live in NYC, I lived in CA, and I can tell you that the idea that Hispanics and African-Americans are this one united block is a myth.

          • FriendlyGoat

            You are too far away from Susana Martinez to know that she does not make conservative decisions sound compassionate. She was marketed and elected in New Mexico on gender and ethnicity, period. Her campaign manager could rank as one of the most crass snakes to ever touch an election. That said, Susana expanded Medicaid and adopted Common Core and was not permitted in a poor state to play the no,no,no game on every issue which is popular with the GOP. She would be on a VP ticket for the SOLE purpose of putting a Hispanic and female face on Chris Christie or Scott Walker—-and for mean-girl bashing Hillary (which she is mean-mouthed enough to do). Rubio or Cruz, or even Bush, would not need her and could not over-weight their tickets with the Hispanic factor. The VP of choice for any of them is currently Kasich (for Ohio), anyway.

          • JR

            Gender and ethnicity? You sound shocked. Hey, by the way, did you know that Hillary Clinton is a woman. Yup, she doesn’t have a ding-dong. nope, she is a woman. And if that’s playing the gender card, then she will play the gender card. And remember when Michelle Obama in 2014 finally spelled it out for those too dense to get the hint: If you are black, you should just vote the D, because that’s what black people do. That sounds like an appeal to ethnicity. As for outside money, please…. Let’s not go there. This just brings back my old point to you that I made many times over. If you start playing by “gotta win, ends justify the means, I’m doing whatever to advance my cause, consequences be damned”, you forfeit the moral high ground. Weakening institutions is a bad thing because the worm always turns, and the first ones now shall later be last.

            As for who gets to be VP, who knows. Walker is the most natural guy to pick her. I don’t have ideological purity litmus tests. She knows how to compromise? Good. We need that. That’s a winning trait. People like that. Hearing her speak at 2012 convention, it was clear she’s planning to go far. And if she is willing to take Hillary on, even better. Elections are supposed to be about getting to know the candidates. Let’s get to know them! They seem hungry. As the great American philosopher Herman Edwards once said: “YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!!!! HELLLLOOOOOOOO!!!! YOU PLAY TO WIN THE GAME!!!!! YOU DON’T PLAY IT JUST TO PLAY IT!!!!!! YOU PLAY IT TO WIN!!!!!”

          • FriendlyGoat

            1) I do not believe we should be hoodwinked into believing that politics is a game like football. The leadership of a nation has consequences. There would not even be a tiny ripple in history if the NY Jets or any other team suddenly stopped playing and went to the senior center for a life of shuffleboard. Seriously, what a sports coach says is NOT a metaphor for how citizens should run a society.

            2) Susana Martinez once was considered a rising VP star for 2016.
            Aside from the fact that she promised New Mexicans in 2014 that she would stay through her term 2015-2018 term as governor, her main man was going to be Chris Christie. Walker could pick her, but less likely.

            3) Having the first Latina Governor in the USA is not the reason to give the store to the Chamber of Commerce gang. But that’s who bought the New Mexico governor’s office and that’s what they used as marketing. Susana was a prosecutor who was TALKED INTO running because she was seen as a “salable” candidate.

          • JR

            When you were asked if you will vote for Hillary Clinton if here behavior was shown to be borderline criminal and ethically unscrupulous. You said, Sure, gotta vote the D. You can no longer claim the high ground anymore. Where was your outrage when Democrats used Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown incidents to try and drive up black vote in GA and VA. And if leadership of a nation has consequences, then I’m sure you are very concerned about Barack Obama’s abuse of his office, where treaty is magically not a treaty and President uses a speech to call his opponents traitors. You silence on those topics is deafening but that governorship of NM, well, it just really grinds your gears.

          • FriendlyGoat

            People who believe in left-side policy vote for left-side candidates. I would have liked Ralph Nader better in his time, but that third-party stuff does not work unless there is a fourth party on the far right. So, of course i’m going to vote for Democrats. That’s all there is on the left side.

            So, if Mrs, Clinton is the nominee, I’m not going to throw out everything I favor in politics and vote for Trump or Bush or Walker because of emails, or Benghazi, or the foundation or Bill’s old girlfriends. Please spare me the list of reasons why I should not like Mrs. Clinton. I’m not in love with her—-and I’m not jilting the entirety of political philosophy.
            Party, party, party actually is the high ground. We are electing a series of decisions and actions a president will make. I’m on the left.

  • acruz37

    Why? Because it was a great realitty show. That’s why. Don’t make things complicated.

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