Somewhat harder numbers for last night's Fox News debate are now in. CNN Money reported earlier today that we were going to see a range of 11 to 13 million, based on preliminary Nielsen ratings; the final number is apparently 12.5 million. It's also pretty clear by now that Donald Trump's counter-programming did not have the punch that he at least expected, given that it's generally agreed that coverage of Trump's event was dwarfed by the Fox News debate. And, of course, Fox's numbers were significantly better than the one to two million that Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski predicted.
But let's talk about the historical data. You see, contra Lewandowski it was never likely that yesterday's debate was going to hit twenty million. The trend line on that has been clear. Below is a list showing GOP debate performance numbers since August of 2015 (data pulled from here and here):
Now, there are three ways to interpret this data. The easiest way is just to look at each debate as being equal in the sight of the Lord, and the American television viewing audience. Looking at it that way: the debates started big, declined a little, declined a good bit, renewed interest, declined a good bit, and now interest has ticked up again (bearing in mind all the time that interest in the GOP debates this cycle completely beats interest in the GOP debates in the last cycle, to say nothing of the snoozefests that are the Democratic debates). This interpretation is actually buttressing one of the two narratives that the media is pushing, largely because it allows them to say "second worst debate numbers this cycle."
Problem with that? Well, the most obvious one is that there is a significant difference between the large debates and the small ones. We've had two debates on Fox Business Network and one on CNBC; and they simply did not have the same reach as the two debates on CNN and the one (aside from yesterday's) on Fox News. So the other narrative that the media is pushing is the one where you compare yesterday's big debate to the last big debate. You do it that way, and you end up with yesterday's Fox News debate having a definite decrease in viewership when compared to the last CNN one; five and a half million viewers in a single month, more or less.
Now, this method of looking at things is more justifiable, more or less - although it doesn't address the Trump campaign's own extremely poor prediction of how many people would watch a Trumpless debate - but I suggest that said method is still not quite apples-to-apples. After all, there are also significant differences between Fox News' viewership numbers and CNN's; Fox simply has more viewers, and has had more for a while now. And, as it happens, there is a first Fox News debate to compare the second Fox News debate to. In fact, a (superficial) comparison of yesterday's debate to the first Fox News debate's would give a worse result than a comparison of it to CNN's latest one. So why aren't more people doing that?
Easy: if you do that, you're faced with the awkward (if you're trying to salvage Trump's reputation, at least) detail that viewership of the second Fox News debate declined at about the same rate when compared to the first Fox News debate as did the second CNN debate when compared to the first CNN debate. Look at these numbers:
CNN dropped about five million viewers in three months; Fox News dropped about eleven and a half million in five. Put another way: CNN has been losing about 1.67 million viewers per month for the debates that it put on, and Fox News has been losing... 2.3 million per month for the debates that it put on. The difference in the comparative declines, while measurable, simply does not look particularly significant, particularly when we were all hearing ahead of time about how last night's debate would sink through the ratings floor with a ferocity one normally associates with chlorine trifluoride*.
And I submit to you the humble suggestion that this decline in general is not really surprising, is it? The first debates had significant traffic, but by now the candidates have been introduced to the American voting public. That viewership hasn't declined further is either a testament to how seriously people are taking this election, or how bad things are right now that people feel that they have to pay attention to the primaries, or both. And I will not in fact go out on a limb here by saying right now that the February and March debates hosted by CNN and Fox will also have fewer viewers, because that's the way that the trends seem to be going.
Bottom line here? Well, the answer to the question in the title is easy: Fox News won the ratings battle, hands down. The problem for Donald Trump, though, is that there is no particular reason to think that his presence on that debate stage last night would have meant better ratings for Fox News. The numbers are... about what you'd expect. Unless, again, you were getting your information from Trump campaign manager** Corey Lewandowski.
All of which means that the Republican debates can do quite well for themselves without the presence of Trump, thank you.
This does not mean that Donald Trump should not be given a seat at the debates. Obviously, under the networks' current, poll-driven criteria he deserves the center podium, should he desire to take it. But if Trump - for whatever reason - does not desire to take that center podium, or indeed any other, the news networks should not particularly indulge Trump's demands. After all, they'll still get ratings that are far better than the ones for comparable debates in 2012.
*Look it up. It's fascinating stuff.
**I'm harping on this because people like campaign managers and official spokespersons are generally assumed to be, well, speaking for a campaign. If they don't, then the campaign in question should replace them. If they do, then the campaign gets to own whatever dangfool thing the manager/spokesperson says. That is, in point of fact, how things are done.