GOP debates set viewership records

Democratic U.S. presidential candidate U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders listens to the opening statement of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Democratic presidential candidates debate at St. Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire December 19, 2015.  REUTERS/Brian Snyder - RTX1ZF5Q

Senator Bernie Sanders and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton at the Democratic debate in New Hampshire last Saturday. Three times as many people tuned into the GOP debate four days earlier. Photo by Brian Snyder/REUTERS

Missed last Saturday’s Democratic debate? You’re not alone: 6.7 million people tuned into the New Hampshire face-off, according to Nielsen ratings. By contrast, 18 million viewers watched the Republican debate, which was held four days earlier in Las Vegas.

The Republican field is generating record-breaking debate interest. This year’s GOP match-ups account for the top six most-watched primary debates of all time.

The first two Republican debates of this cycle – in August and September of this year – each topped 23 million viewers, a new high. In comparison, Democrats set their record in April 2008, with 10.7 million viewers.

There are a few reasons why voters may be more interested in the Republican battle this time around.

First, the 2016 GOP field is arguably the most deep on experience and talent since at least 2000. And then of course there’s Donald Trump, the current Republican front-runner and an astute entertainer who spent more than a decade starring on a hit reality television show.

But his showmanship is not the only factor. Consider the timing. Trump and his potential to spark instant mass reaction come as social media continues to explode. Twitter estimates its traffic has tripled since 2011, to roughly 500 million tweets now.

As Republicans’ debates set records, Democrats’ ratings may seem small by comparison. But look closer and you can see Democrats’ first debate this season, in Las Vegas in October, set their party’s record, with 15 million viewers.

And both Democratic and Republican debates this year have rated more highly than every GOP debate in 2012. Conclusion: Republicans are drawing massive audiences but more people are watching both sides.