The hype is stratospheric: Some believe the first debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump could be the Most-Watched Debate of All Time.
To claim that mantle, Monday night’s 90-minute face-off at Hofstra University in New York would have to exceed a whopping 81 million viewers — that’s the record set by the first-and-only debate between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter in 1980.
By comparison, the first presidential debate of the last election cycle, between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, averaged 67 million viewers. And that 2012 audience was actually the largest in many years; to find a larger number, you’d have to go all the way back to 1992, when Bill Clinton faced off against George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot, rallying 69.9 million viewers.
At the other end of the spectrum, the lowest-rated debate election year in modern history was Clinton vs. Bob Dole in 1996, with their most-watched debate only delivering 36.3 million.
Tonight’s debate has some headwinds against it: ESPN’s Monday Night Football, as Trump has previously complained about. Even with the heavy competition, it’s probably a safe bet that tonight’s clash will at least top 2012’s, if only because Trump has shown repeatedly he delivers record ratings on a debate stage.
So what’s your guess for how many will tune in? About 80 million… 90… 100… more? Now we’re talking Super Bowl-size numbers (112 million watched this year’s game, and the record for biggest telecast ever is last year’s 115 million tally). That seems unlikely given the number of viewers watching on streaming platforms nowadays.
The debate tonight will air at 9 p.m. ET and on the major broadcast networks and cable news channels, plus will be live-streamed on YouTube, Twitter, and more. Some venues, like the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema chain, are even selling tickets to viewing parties.
Often it’s the little moments from the debate that tend to have outsized influence rather than the candidates’ performances as a whole, especially as the debate gets dissected into viral video clips. In case you missed it, here’s the eight moments we’re looking to see at tonight’s clash (with our handy debate Bingo card).