Debate Audience: Numbers Matter

Photograph by Scott Eells/Bloomberg

Audience members take photographs before the start of the second presidential debate at Hofstra University in Hempstead, New York.

Updated by Emma Fidel at 5:29 pm EDT

It’s not only what happens.

It’s also who’s watching.

The televised presidential debates are drawing roughly twice the viewing audience of the major parties’ presidential nominating conventions. The president got a polling bounce from his convention. His rival got a bounce from their first debate.

The ratings from last night’s televised debate, a contest that played out in the president’s favor according to viewing voters surveyed immediately afterward, will help determine how much of an impact it has on the race. CNN’s post-debate polling found an audience evenly divided in party affiliation.

The audience totaled approximately 65.6 million people, according to Nielsen Media Research. The four major broadcast networks drew 39.5 million viewers and three cable news outlets had 21.7 million, according to Nielsen data released by media outlets today.

Viewership was down slightly from the first debate of President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney on Oct. 3, which drew a total of 67.2 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

With viewers by better than a two-to-one margin telling CNN’s pollsters afterward that Romney won that premier debate, the impact on Romney’s standing in the polls that followed could be clearly seen.

That viewership was up 28 percent, compared with the audience (52.4 million) for the first presidential debate of Obama and Sen. John McCain in 2008.

The only debate between Vice President Joe Biden and Romney running mate Paul Ryan drew almost as many viewers (51.4 million) as the first presidential debate four years ago. Yet it drew far fewer viewers than the vice presidential debate of 2008,, when Biden faced former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (69.9 million) — even more than the first presidential debate of this season.

An estimated 35.7 million viewers followed the closing night of the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte this year. That was almost as large as the number (38.4 million) who viewed the closing night of Obama’s nominating convention in Denver in 2008.

The closing night of Romney’s nominating convention in Tampa this year drew 30.3 million viewers, which was not as strong as the 38.9 million who viewed the closing night of McCain’s convention in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 2008.

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