The Democratic debate on Saturday drew just 8.5 million viewers — by far the lowest of the six primary debates thus far. To put this into perspective: During the same time slot as the debate, about the same number of people watched either the Baylor-Oklahoma football game on ABC or the Oregon-Stanford game on Fox.
By the end of debate season, Republicans will have reached far more viewers
We knew this weekend debate wouldn’t garner a wide viewership; Saturday debates typically don't. The Democratic National Committee has been accused of purposely scheduling debates on days people wouldn’t watch. But DNC spokesperson Eric Walker told me, "During the height of the Clinton-Obama primary in 2008, the highest-rated debate was 10.7 million, so 8.5 million is a strong showing historically for a presidential primary, and very strong for a Saturday night."
Also on Saturday, there was a Dateline special on the Paris attacks that drew a significant audience in an overlapping time slot with the debate.
Still, it was a low number for this election cycle, and some aren't convinced the Democrats will end up with many viewers. Simon Rosenberg, a former DNC official and founder of the New Democrat Network, told Politico that by the end of the primary debate season, Republicans will have reached far more viewers than the Democrats:
"If averages hold, and given next two debates on weekends, six Dem debates will reach between 60-70 million viewers, or less than GOP has already reached in its first four debates," he said. "Gap will be between 130 to 140 million viewers — a number equal to the total number of people who are likely to vote next year."
Of course, these debates are likely reaching a lot of the same viewers, so saying these debates will reach 140 million more viewers is misleading; it's more accurate to say that at this pace, Republican candidates will get a lot more face time with viewers than Democratic candidates.
Democrats say they have a big punch planned
The Democrats have one more Saturday debate, six days before Christmas.
Their next debate falls on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Normally, this would be a dud of a time slot, since it's basically a Saturday. But DNC officials argue that the debate is right after an NFL playoff double header, which could carry over a large audience to the debate. It’s a legitimate argument — increased viewership in programs after big NFL games is a well-documented phenomenon, especially after the Super Bowl.
Saturday debates are rare — but not this election season
The GOP also has a Saturday debate in February, but the Republican National Committee has scheduled a total of 12 debates, compared with the six the Democrats put on the calendar.
Saturday debates are exceedingly rare, and we found out why this past weekend.
Next up for the Democrats: Another Saturday debate
The next Democratic debate is on December 19, a Saturday.
The one after is on January 17, a Sunday, which is actually a decent day for debate viewership.