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State of the Screens

Road to the White House: Biden vs. Trump I

By June 28, 2024No Comments


Nine big questions re: the first presidential debate of 2024:
1) Which presidential debate had the highest viewership?
2) Which age groups tune in most?
3) Which networks will have the most viewers?
4) Who is currently ahead in the polls?
5) Do debates matter?
6) How many ad breaks will there be?
7) How long do people stay tuned into a presidential debate?
8) When was the first televised presidential debate?
9) Who has hosted the most presidential debates?

Big question #1: Which presidential debate had the highest viewership?

Presidential debates with the highest viewership, according to Nielsen:
1) Clinton Trump (09/26/2016) – 84M
2) Carter/Reagan (10/28/1980) – 81M

3) Trump/Biden (09/29/2020) – 73M
4) Clinton/Trump (10/20/2016) – 72M
5) Clinton/Bush/Perot (10/15/1992) – 70M

PSA: Between 1960 and 2020, TV households grew 15X faster than viewership for the debates.  Ratings (share of households) provide a better apples-to-apples comparison.

Growth between 1960-2020:
1) TV households – ↑ 164%
2) Presidential debate viewership – ↑ 10%
3) TV rating – ↓ 34%

Surprising: As recently as 1980, more people watched presidential debates than the Super Bowl!

A word from our sponsor: Changes in population and viewership trends are big themes of my book “Screen Wars: Win the Battle for Attention with Convergent TV.”

FYI: 62% of adults plan on watching at least some of tonight’s debate live. Are you one of them?

Big question #2: Which age groups tune in most?

Quick answer: Much like our presidential choices, viewership is also very (very) old.

Rating for Trump/Biden I in 2020, according to Nielsen:
1) 55+ – 42.7
2) 35-54 – 25.5
3) 18-34 – 12.0

Share of presidential debate viewers in the 50+ demo:
1) 1996 – 52%
2) 2016 – 59%

Why this matters: Voters in the 18-54 demo make up 62% of the swing voter audience but less than 40% of the debate viewership audience.

Share of swing voter audience according to Cross Screen Media:
1) 18-34 – 28%
2) 35-54 – 34%
3) 55+ – 38%

The big picture: Older voters (55+) make up 49% of likely voters but are more locked into their candidate/party choice and less persuadable.  Younger voters (18-54) are 51% of likely voters but 62% of persuadable/swing voters.

Big question #3: Which networks will have the most viewers?

Total viewers by network for Trump/Biden I in 2020 (% of total):
1) Fox News – 17.8M (24%)
2) ABC – 12.6M (17%)
3) NBC – 9.7M (13%)
4) CNN – 8.3M (11%)
5) MSNBC – 7.2M (10%)
6) CBS – 6.4M (9%)
7) Fox – 5.4M (7%)
8) Other – 5.7M (8%)

Big question #4: Who is currently ahead in the polls?

Quick answer: In the race for 270 electoral votes, President Trump has a small lead in both the popular vote and key battleground states.

Big question #5: Do debates matter?

Quick answer: Both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections were decided by incredibly small margins.  President Trump would have been re-elected if 81K voters (0.03% of U.S. adults) had switched their votes in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin.  You could argue that several things (debates, earned media, TV advertising, turnout, etc.) could impact 81K votes.

Share of U.S. voters saying debates helped decide who to vote for, according to Pew Research:
1) 1988 – 48%
2) 1992 – 70%
3) 1996 – 41%
4) 2000 – 62%
5) 2004 – 62%
6) 2008 – 67%
7) 2012 – 66%
8) 2016 – 63%

Big question #6: How many ad breaks will there be?

Quick math for ad breaks during the presidential debate:
1) 90-minute debate
2) 2 ad breaks
3) Each ad break is 3.5 minutes
4) 7 minutes of ads
5) ≈ 14 30s spots
6) Each network can sell their own advertising

Big question #7: How long do people stay tuned into a presidential debate?

Quick answer: 60% of viewers tune in within 5 minutes of the start and stay until the end.

Interesting: 605 published an interesting minute-by-minute breakdown by party for Trump/Biden II in 2020.

Big question #8: When was the first televised presidential debate?

Quick answer: The first nationally televised presidential debate was in 1960 between then-U.S. Senator John Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon.

Trivia night: It would be 16 years until the next campaign held debates.  Both President Lyndon Johnson (1964) and President Richard Nixon (1968 and 1972) refused to debate.  Debates have been held every election since 1976.  President Jimmy Carter refused to participate in the first debate of the 1980 election against then-Governor Ronald Reagan, but they did finally square off in front of a then-record 81M viewers (58.9 rating).

Big question #9: Who has hosted the most presidential debates?

Quick answer: Jim Lehrer (PBS) is the GOAT of debate moderators with 12.  Second place is Bob Schieffer (CBS) at 3.

More: 7 Things You May Not Know About US Presidential Debates

Michael Beach

Michael Beach is the Chief Executive Officer of Cross Screen Media, a media analytics and software company that enables marketers to plan, activate, and measure CTV and linear TV at the local level. Michael is also the founder and editor of State of the Screens, a weekly newsletter focused on video advertising that is a must-read for thought leaders in the advertising industry. He has appeared in such publications as PBS Frontline, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Axios, CNBC and Bloomberg, and on NPR’s Planet Money podcast.