Second Republican primary debate had the lowest TV viewership since 2015

When it comes to debates, the question of ratings is usually little more than a curiosity. But in the face of polling showing Donald Trump approaching 60% support among Republican primary voters — and an unusually high proportion of those voters saying their minds are already made up — it took on new significance last night.

With the former president again skipping the debate, how much interest would there be in hearing out a collection of non-Trump candidates?

The answer, per the Nielsen ratings service: about 9.3 million people. That’s a steep drop from the first debate, which was also held without Trump and attracted about 12.8 million viewers. It also represents — by a significant margin — the lowest TV audience for any Republican presidential debate since the start of the 2016 cycle, when Trump first became a candidate. 

Below is a chart of estimated viewerships for all GOP debates since the 2016 cycle. While it is true that the TV and streaming world has changed significantly over the last eight years — potentially explaining some of the audience slippage — there’s no escaping that last night represented a low water mark for Trump-era GOP debate interest.

Even though it was broadcast on Fox Business Network, Fox News Channel and Univision, it still attracted roughly 3.4 million fewer viewers than the first GOP debate just one month ago, which was hosted by the Fox News Channel. That’s a decline of 27%. By contrast, the decline between the first and second debates of the 2016 cycle — both of which featured Trump — was just 4%.

In a press release Thursday, Fox News said another 200,000 viewers watched on streaming platforms. The numbers in the chart below reflect TV viewership only.

Nigel Chiwaya and Daniel Arkin contributed.

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