The fifth Democratic presidential debate of the 2020 cycle drew a big audience for MSNBC Wednesday, though audiences are growing somewhat less interested in the verbal sparring as the campaign wears on. Per preliminary Nielsen data, roughly 6.6 million viewers watched TV coverage of last night’s Atlanta debate, which aired from 9 p.m. until just after 11 p.m. on the NBC-owned cable news channel. That’s nearly triple MSNBC’s usual prime-time audience, but down about 20 percent from last month’s CNN debate (8.3 million viewers). It’s also the smallest audience this year for a Democratic National Committee–sponsored showdown.
Political pundits, especially a certain prolific tweeter who resides in public housing in Washington, will likely be tempted to declare these ratings are a sign of #DemsInDisarray. But in fact, it’s fairly common for primary-debate ratings to slip as the campaign cycle wears on: In the 2016 race, the first CNN debate with Democratic candidates notched over 15 million viewers in October 2015; by March of 2016, a CNN debate in the heat of the spirited fight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders drew just one-third the number of viewers (5.5 million). Similarly, the fifth debate of the 2016 cycle (which also aired on MSNBC), brought in 4.5 million viewers, making this week’s audience of 6.6 million look pretty good.
It’s also worth noting that Nielsen’s numbers don’t account for the total audience that watched last night: MSNBC says the debate also drew 1.3 million video streams across various NBC-owned sites Wednesday, and it’s likely a decent number of viewers caught portions of the debate via Twitter clips or on the website of the Washington Post, one of the co-sponsors of the event. Per MSNBC, its coverage of the House impeachment hearings and the debate combined to give the network its second-biggest total day audience ever, with an average of 2.75 million viewers tuning in during a given hour yesterday.
The next Democratic primary debate, to be sponsored by PBS and Politico, takes place December 19 in Los Angeles. CNN will air a cable simulcast of the PBS broadcast.