How Many People Watched the Presidential Debate: Mediocre TV Ratings, But New Records on Twitter

Preliminary results show that last night’s presidential debate was the highest rated debate of the election so far, with a 19% increase in viewers over 2008. According to the Fast National Nielsen data, 37.41 million people between the ages of 18 and 49 watched the debate on network television, and approximately 25 million tuned in to the post-debate analysis. Data on cable network viewership will be available later today.  Nielsen emphasizes that these numbers are very preliminary and subject to change, but, if they’re accurate, they show a 19% increase in viewers over the 2008 Obama-McCain debate, which attracted only 36 million viewers in cable and network readings combined. Neither debate comes close to matching the historic high of the 1980 Carter-Reagan debate, which was watched by 80.1 million people.

Yesterday’s debate did set a record on social media site Twitter, though: Twitter analysts say that it was the most tweeted political event in history, generating 10.3 million tweets. Jim Lehrer’s “let’s not” response to Mitt Romney’s request to move to another debate topic prompted a staggering 158,690 tweets per minute and inspired a Jim Lehrer parody twitter account, @SilentJimLehrer. The political issue that sparked the most  response was the discussion of Medicare, which generated 150,000 tweets per minute. You can see a graphic showing twitter activity during the debate here.

Many analysts consider that that this social media traffic could provide a useful measure of both viewership and audience reaction. In fact, the owners of a Canadian participation TV platform, iPowow! offered to provide a platform real-time voting on social media, which could be announced, American Idol-style, during the debate. The networks declined.


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Amy Stoller

Amy Stoller is a graduate student in Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. She is interested in the role of media in the Middle East and Central Asia and has worked with projects such as Watching America and Alive.in.

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