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The fifth Democratic presidential primary debate scores 6.6 million viewers, the lowest so far

Democratic Presidential Candidates Participate In Debate In Atlanta, Georgia
Democratic presidential candidates, from left, Tulsi Gabbard, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, Elizabeth Warren, Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders, arrive on stage before the start of their debate in Atlanta on Wednesday.
(Joe Raedle / Getty Images)

The Democratic presidential primary debate road show is losing its audience appeal.

The fifth meeting of the 2020 contenders for the Democratic nomination that aired on MSNBC was watched by 6.6 million TV viewers on Wednesday, according to Nielsen, the smallest audience yet for the monthly candidate faceoffs that began in June.

The number is double what MSNBC typically attracts in prime time but down from the 8.3 million who watched the candidates debate on CNN last month.

The most viewed debate was on June 27, when 18.1 million people watched across NBC, MSNBC and Telemundo. It was the second round of the first debate.


One possible factor for the dropoff is that devoted news viewers may have been fatigued after watching hours of gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Trump impeachment inquiry hearings that aired on all of the cable news and broadcast networks during the day, averaging 11 million viewers from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern.

“It was a substantive debate, but it was, in every way, a sideshow to the existential presidential drama unfolding in Washington even as the candidates were arriving to debate,” said Mark Lukasiewicz, dean of the Lawrence Herbert School of Communication at Hofstra University. “I imagine there were many viewers exhausted from tracking the impeachment hearings.”

But the number also raises the question about voter enthusiasm for the Democratic field, especially one that still has a number of low-polling candidates on a crowded stage. Ten candidates qualified for the event by attracting support of 3% of respondents in four national polls or 5% in two of the first four states holding a caucus or primary.

“Ten candidates is not a formula for a successful debate” Lukasiewicz said. “I am sure the Democratic National Committee expected its debate rules would have produced a smaller field by now.”


The debate held at Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta included former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Sen. Kamala Harris of California, Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, businessman Tom Steyer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang.

The debate was moderated by Rachel Maddow, the MSNBC prime-time host; Andrea Mitchell, chief NBC News foreign affairs correspondent and MSNBC host; Kristen Welker, NBC News White House correspondent; and Ashley Parker, who covers the White House for the Washington Post.

The Democratic candidates meet again on Dec. 12. That debate will air on PBS and CNN.

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