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Vice presidential debate draws 57.9 million viewers, the second largest audience ever for the event

Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence met in a debate moderated by Susan Page; the fly that visited Pence's hair.
Clockwise: Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Vice President Mike Pence, moderator Susan Page of USA Today and the fly that visited Pence’s hair at the vice presidential debate held Wednesday in Salt Lake City.
(Associated Press)

The vice presidential debate drew 57.9 million viewers on Wednesday, making it the second most watched match-up of running mates in history.

According to Nielsen data, the showdown between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris of California finished behind the record of 69.6 million viewers who watched Sarah Palin face off against Joe Biden in 2008.

The 2020 figure is 55% higher than Pence’s appearance on the debate stage in 2016, when 37.2 million viewers watched him tangle with Democratic challenger Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia.

The debate was moderated by USA Today Washington Bureau Chief Susan Page at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.

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The top three most-watched vice presidential debates have all included the three female candidates who have been nominated for the office. The vice presidential candidates have met in each campaign cycle since 1976 with the exception of 1980.

In 1984, 56.7 million viewers watched Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro, the first female on a national ticket, face off against Republican incumbent George H.W. Bush.

The Pence-Harris showdown was far more civil than the first presidential debate between the candidates at the top of the ticket, President Trump and Biden, the former vice president.

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Pence and Harris went hard over the issues of the president’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Affordable Care Act, tax policy and the White House decision to put forward Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett a month before the election.

A bizarre highlight was the landing of a fly on Pence’s silvery coif. It remained there for two minutes as the vice president spoke and the moment became the social media topic of the night.

Cable’s Fox News had the most viewers, with 11.5 million, followed by ABC (9.4 million), CNN (7.4 million), MSNBC (6.7 million), NBC (6.5 million), CBS (5.2 million) and the Fox broadcast network (4.1 million). The debate also aired on PBS, WGN America, Newsmax, Telemundo, BET, BET HER, Fox Business Network, Newsy and Newsmax.

The first presidential debate, held on Sept. 29, was watched by 73 million viewers. Trump and Biden were scheduled to meet again on Oct. 15.

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Those plans are up in the air as Trump said in a Fox Business Network interview on Thursday that he would not participate after the Commission of Presidential Debates announced the event would be held virtually due to the president’s coronavirus diagnosis.


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