In an earlier thread this morning, commenter Bemused asked:
James–can you tell us anything about who watches debates (i.e., the numbers, compared to, say, the numbers for AI)? I read all this speculation on political blogs about how the candidates’ performances will affect voters, but I always wonder how many voters even watch debates. It’s hard not to think that most people (as opposed to political junkies) watch no primary debates, or maybe one at most.
Surprisingly, it turns out that people like to watch fights. The contentious debate drew 4.9 million viewers–not close to American Idol numbers, but (CNN claims) the highest rating ever for a primary debate on cable. (About three million of those were 50 years old and over, for whatever that’s worth.)
On the one hand, that’s still a pretty small subset of TV viewers. On the other hand, primary voters are a small subset of the eligible electorate. One would think that the Venn diagram of those two subsets would overlap considerably, but Nielsen doesn’t break down viewership into likely-voter groups.
Still, it’s worth remembering that the snippets of this, and any other, debate–the fiestiest exchanges, replayed on the news, online and quoted in the press–have greater reach than any full, in-context debate.