First Clinton-Trump matchup breaks presidential debate record with 84 million TV viewers

The estimated audience for first presidential debate hit 84 million, according to Nielsen numbers.
The estimated audience for first presidential debate hit 84 million, according to Nielsen numbers.
(David Goldman / Associated Press)

The contentious first presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump lived up to its high ratings expectations, delivering the largest-ever TV audience for a presidential debate.

The audience for Monday’s matchup for the ad-supported broadcast and cable networks as well as PBS reached 84 million, according to Nielsen numbers. That figure reflects the average total number of people who watched the program throughout.

Monday’s face-off tops the previous record for a presidential debate set when 80.6 million viewers watched President Carter and Ronald Reagan clash on Oct. 28, 1980. It was their only meeting of that year’s presidential campaign, which occurred in an era when U.S. households had only a few channels to choose from.


The political news media was billing the Monday night showdown between the former first lady/senator/secretary of State and the real estate mogul turned reality TV star as the Super Bowl of political events. Trump’s startlingly successful campaign for the Republican nomination drove ratings for the debates during the primary season to record levels. That continued Monday night, though the final audience number fell short of the 100 million-plus viewers some had predicted.

“The debate was record-setting but not record-shattering,” said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. “Still, 84 million is a big chunk of the approximately 135 million expected to vote this year. Not too shabby.”

The viewership figures understated how many people watched the debate, although by how much is uncertain. The total across broadcast and cable networks measured by Nielsen does not include viewers who watched the debate through various video streams available online. Streaming probably cut into the TV audience number, as younger viewers have turned to digital devices to watch programs and live events since the 2012 presidential debates, the highest of which averaged 67.2 million television viewers.

Several networks reported sharp upsurges in usage for their streaming video offering of the debates, but none offered definitive data on how many people watched online.

NBC, the network home of the debate’s moderator, Lester Holt, had the largest TV audience, with 18.15 million viewers.

Among the other broadcast networks, ABC drew 13.5 million viewers, followed by CBS (12.08 million), Fox (5.57 million), PBS (2.96 million), Univision (2.47 million) and Telemundo (1.76 million).


Fox News Channel was the most-watched cable channel to carry the event, averaging 11.36 million viewers. Next were CNN (9.8 million), MSNBC (4.89 million), Fox Business Network (673,000) and CNBC (520,000).

Holt, anchor of the “NBC Nightly News,” was under intense scrutiny after his network’s poorly received “Commander-in-Chief Forum” with the candidates on Sept. 7. At that event, “Today” co-anchor Matt Lauer received major heat for failing to fact-check Trump for falsely stating his opposition to the Iraq war. This time around, Holt did fact-check statements.

Holt’s largely unobtrusive style had its detractors on social media, especially among Clinton supporters who believed he let Trump interrupt too often. But Holt played well in the spin room at Hofstra University in Hempstead, N.Y., where the media were gathered to cover the event.

“I thought he had a great night,” said Mark McKinnon, a former Republican consultant who is now a producer and co-host for Showtime’s political series “The Circus.” “I thought he pressed where he needed to press. It never got out of control, which is what you want from a debate moderator.”

Tammy Haddad, co-host of Bloomberg’s “Masters in Politics” podcast and a veteran TV news producer, agreed.

“I think he did the impossible,” she said. “When was the last time you had a debate where the moderator was able to get out of the way and make sure all of the issues were hit? I think he did it well. I think you learned more in this one evening than the last month of the campaign.”

Political strategist David Plouffe, who supports Clinton, also gave Holt a decent grade, but said he believes the candidates need to focus on their own performance more than that of the moderator.

“Generally you’ve got to take care of your own business,” Plouffe said. “You’ve got to prosecute the case. He moved the debate along. I’m just a believer that you have to control your own destiny. You better be prepared to win the debate or do as well as you can, no matter what the moderator does or does not do.”

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5:50 p.m.: This article has been revised throughout for additional updates and for clarity.

This was originally posted at 12:10 p.m.