The Highest-Rated Debates in History


Big plans for Clinton-Obama III?

The two remaining Democratic candidates take the stage tonight for one final debate before the March 4th primaries. People everywhere are talking about this race "“ and by 'everywhere,' I mean my barbershop, selected friends' Facebook profiles and on MSNBC. But where will tonight's contest rank historically?

Last week's Austin debate drew roughly 7.7 million viewers, while last month's showdown in Hollywood was seen by 8.3 million. These numbers understandably pale in comparison to viewership for general election debates. According to Nielsen Media Research data provided to the Commission on Presidential Debates, the largest debate audience came in 1980, when 80.6 million people watched Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. Here's the top ten:

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1. Reagan-Carter, October 28, 1980 (80.6 million)
2. Clinton-Bush-Perot, October 15, 1992 (69.9 million)
3. Carter-Ford, September 23, 1976 (69.7 million)
4. Reagan-Mondale, October 21, 1984 (67.3 million)
(tie) Bush-Dukakis, October 13, 1988 (67.3 million)

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6. Clinton-Bush-Perot, October 19, 1992 (66.9 million)
7. Kennedy-Nixon, September 26, 1960 (66.4 million*)
8. Reagan-Mondale, October 7, 1984 (65.1 million)
(tie) Bush-Dukakis, September 25, 1988 (65.1 million**)
10. Carter-Ford, October 6, 1976 (63.9 million)

* The four Kennedy-Nixon debates were seen on a larger percentage of televisions in 1960 than other debates on this list. But there were far fewer televisions.

** It's a little strange to me that the 1984 and 1988 debates had virtually identical ratings. A second source backs it up.

Previously on mental_floss...

"¢ The Projectionist: Memorable Moments from Past Debates
"¢ Take the quiz: The Debating Game