Democratic debate: Viewership for first night dips with 8.7 million TV viewers

Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders,  Elizabeth Warren and Beto O'Rourke
From left, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Beto O’Rourke participate in Tuesday’s Democratic primary debate.
(Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

The audience for Tuesday’s CNN debate with the contenders for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination fell far below the first matchup last month.

The event — the first of two consecutive debates this week — was held at the Fox Theatre in Detroit and averaged 8.7 million TV viewers, according to Nielsen data released Wednesday. CNN said additional viewers on CNN en Español and its digital stream pushed the total up to 9.2 million.

The total fell well below round one of the first two-part 2020 Democratic debate shown on NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo on June 26, which was watched by 15.3 million viewers. The following night set a record for a Democratic primary debate with 18.1 million viewers.

The Democrats’ raucous presidential debate highlighted a fundamental choice — whether to pick a presidential nominee who calls for big, ambitious policies or one with a more-centrist, pragmatic approach.

Still, the Tuesday event is the second most-watched Democratic primary debate in CNN’s history, ranking behind the first candidate showdown in the 2016 presidential cycle, which drew 15.5 million viewers on Oct. 13, 2015. That debate was held in the fall when there are typically more people watching television than the summer months.

The lively debate on Tuesday was a battle between the Democrats’ liberal and moderate wings, with the party’s most left-leaning candidates — Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont — taking most of the fire.

Along with Warren and Sanders, CNN’s first round included Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Rep. John Delaney of Maryland, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio and author and spiritual advisor Marianne Williamson.


Joe Biden and Kamala Harris get a rematch in Detroit. And now Cory Booker seems to want to get into the fight.

The second round is scheduled for Wednesday with front-runner former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Michael Bennet of Colorado, tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

CNN executives are anticipating a larger audience for Wednesday’s debate given that there is significant pressure on Biden, 76, to turn in a strong performance after a lackluster showing in his first debate appearance.