Saturday night’s alright for fighting if you’re a Republican running for the 2016 presidential nomination.
The party’s ninth primary debate on CBS pulled an average of 13.51 million viewers — the highest-rated candidate showdown since Oct. 28 when 14 million watched CNBC’s event, according to Nielsen data.
The audience topped the 13.18 million viewers who watched the Feb. 6 debate on ABC, which was also a raucous affair. But political commentators were comparing the lack of civility in Saturday’s contentious meeting of the six remaining GOP candidates in Greenville, S.C., to a steel-cage wrestling match.
At one point, CBS News moderator John Dickerson chastised the battling candidates by saying, “Hold on gentlemen, I’m going to turn this car around.”
Interest in the debate was also likely heightened by the late afternoon news coverage on the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. The opening on the court became the first topic of discussion at the debate.
The strong ratings for the primary debates in the 2016 campaign season plateaued in the summer and fall, when the first meeting of Republicans scored an average of 24 million viewers on Fox News Channel and 15.3 million watched the Democrats on CNN.
But the audience levels for the Republicans have bounced back since an average of 12.54 million viewers tuned in for Fox News Channel’s Jan. 28 debate. Front-runner Donald Trump — considered the catalyst for the increased viewer interest in the campaign — chose to sit out that event because he was still unhappy with the tough questioning from Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly at the first Republican debate on Aug. 6
The 2016 debates are still far stronger than any of the 2012 Republican primary campaign events. The largest debate audience in that campaign cycle was 7.63 million viewers for an ABC telecast on Dec. 10, 2011.
CBS News also said there were 2 million streams of its debate coverage on its online digital channel CBSN.