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Why the Trump-Clinton debate ratings were both historic — and a little disappointing

At least 80.9 million Americans tuned in Monday night to watch Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton go head to head in the first presidential debate of 2016, making it the most-watched presidential debate in American history.

But it doesn’t come close to surpassing the 112 million Americans who watched the Super Bowl last year, and it is only slightly more than the 80.6 million Americans who watched Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter debate in 1980. What’s more, it doesn’t come close to topping optimistic projected viewership of 100 million.

In addition, what last night’s numbers don’t tell you is that the percentage of voting-eligible Americans who watched was abysmal.

According to the Commerce Department, there are roughly 250 million Americans eligible to vote. So if roughly 81 million Americans watched last night’s debate, that means only 33 percent of the population who can vote in November bothered to tune in.

Bar chart showing the percentage of the population of voting age who have watched presidential debates since 1980.

And that’s worrying — because a few decades ago, a much larger chunk of the population took the time to watch candidates debate.

Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter’s showdown in 1980 drew an audience of 80.6 million Americans — which works out to about half of the 157 million voting-age Americans who lived in the country at the time.

But viewership among Americans never topped the Kennedy and Nixon debate in 1960, when a whopping 61 percent of households tuned in. (Nielsen didn’t collect the number of viewers in 1960, so we can’t estimate the percentage of voting-age Americans who watched.)

However, if you consider that 1960 boasted the first televised debate ever, and 61 percent of households watched, it’s likely the percentage of voting-eligible Americans that watched was even higher than 1980’s historic 51.3 percent.

To get 50 percent of voting-age Americans to watch the debate, 44 million more Americans must watch

The rising popularity of online streaming could be one possible explanation for the low percentage of eligible voters watching. Nielsen’s viewership data unfortunately only accounts for traditional TV viewership or watching on a television set at home.

But according to CNN, traditional TV viewership still made up 95 percent of the audience that watched the presidential primaries, so online streaming doesn’t seem to fully explain why less of the voting-age population is tuning in. Back in 1996, the percentage of eligible voters who watched Bill Clinton and Bob Dole’s presidential debate was far smaller — 18.7 percent — than the 33 percent who tuned in last night.

To reach the highest proportion in the modern era — 50 percent of the voting-age population — nearly 125 million Americans, 44 million more than Monday’s number, would have to tune in to watch the next presidential debate.

But things look dismal for improving on this year’s numbers. The first presidential debate has typically drawn the largest audience, with a notable exception of 2008, when the first debate between John McCain and Barack Obama was actually the lowest-rated.

So who knows, maybe we’ll see a repeat of 2008, and the second and third debates will draw more viewers. But with voter enthusiasm relatively low and two unpopular candidates onstage, this seems unlikely.


Watch: How presidential debates are won and lost

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