Big debate ratings and (in Iowa) big voter turnout have been the story of the GOP primary race so far, and despite being on a Saturday night, the New Hampshire debate on ABC was no exception:
Bucking a trend of declining debate ratings, ABC's Saturday night GOP face-off was the highest rated debate so far in 2016, according to Nielsen. ABC's debate coverage between 8 and 11 p.m. averaged 13.2 million viewers.
That "in 2016" qualifier bears some examination, because the first two debates in July and August drew eye-popping audiences above 20 million, and the December CNN debate drew in over 18 million viewers. But then again, this is the eighth Republican debate of the cycle, and the smallest audience so far is 11 million people. By contrast, the last Saturday night Democratic debate on MSNBC drew 4.5 million viewers, and only one Democratic debate so far has cleared 11 million (the first, which was watched by 15 million people). Donald Trump has clearly been a big reason for the big draws, but the fact that Fox News brought in 12.5 million people without Trump in the last debate shows that Trump alone is not the only reason. Face it: this is an exciting, dramatic race with a bunch of new faces and big personalities, and the stakes are high. Three candidates broke the record for the biggest vote for a Republican in the history of the Iowa Caucus, after all. As Marco Rubio noted last night:
Look at the turnout in Iowa. A historic number of people came out and voted in those caucuses. There are saying the same thing is going to happen here in New Hampshire. Look at the rallies that every single person on this stage is having. Much higher numbers than you used to see in the past and here is why.
Buried in the ratings is potential good news for Rubio in particular:
The debate ratings rose each half hour between 8 and 10 p.m., indicating that viewers stuck with the program despite an embarrassing flub during the candidate introductions.
Given that Rubio's bad moments fighting with Chris Christie came at the outset and he had a much stronger second half, that means not only that voters didn't tune out after the Christie fight, but that a fair number of them only saw the parts that went better for Rubio (ditto for Ted Cruz, who had his strongest moments late). That said, it remains to be seen if the post-debate spin overshadows what actually happened.
But if you are any of the GOP campaigns, you have to be happy that this far into the process, people are still watching, in numbers much larger than are watching the Democrats.