Blowout: Fox debate may be the most-watched non-sports program in cable history

Finally, something Trump-lovers and Trump-haters can agree on: Without him, the ratings wouldn’t have come anywhere near this.

Which, actually, makes his flirtation with a third-party run last night extra ironic. This guy did the rest of the GOP field a publicity favor so enormous it can really never be repaid.

A whopping 24 million watched the debate from 9 p.m. ET to just past 11 p.m. ET. FNC drew 7.9 million in the A25-54 demo.

This is poised to be the highest non-sports cable program of all time. It’s already the highest-rated cable news program of all time and Fox News’s most-watched program ever.

The 5 p.m. ET debate, withe the 7 lower-tier candidates did very well for Fox News too, drawing 6.1 million total viewers and 1.2 million in the demo, making it the third-highest primary debate ever on cable.

We’ll have to wait for one of the data sites like FiveThirtyEight to calculate Trump’s influence on the ratings scientifically but you can get a sense of the magnitude by looking at the audience for Republican debates during the last cycle. According to TV Newser, the first GOP primary debate in 2011 drew just shy of 3.3 million people; the audience for the most-watched debate, held just a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses in December 2011, was 7.6 million. If you want to be generous and assume that the larger, stronger Republican field this year would itself have been a major draw even without Trump, how many viewers realistically based on the 2011 numbers would a Trump-less debate last night have attracted? Eight million? Ten, maybe? Even by conservative estimates, I’d bet Trump singlehandedly doubled and maybe even tripled the audience, a phenomenal opportunity for Bush, Rubio, Walker, et al. to introduce themselves to casual voters. The fact that even the 5 p.m. “JV debate” drew six million viewers, approaching the audience for the final debate in 2011, suggests that Trumpmania may have had knock-on effects even for the lower-ranking candidates. (To put that in perspective, Jon Stewart’s final “Daily Show” episode earned just 3.5 million viewers.) The next time you hear someone say Trump should drop out for the good of the party, ask yourself how many million viewers you’d be prepared to sacrifice to make that happen. With Trump in the September debate, CNN may be looking at an audience of 15-20 million. (I’m assuming a fall-off from last night just because the novelty will have worn off, but who knows?) Without him, how many? Seven?

Speaking of debate ratings, here’s the closest thing that exists right now to a scientific poll of who won. Surprise:

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A bit of a wash for Trump, who finishes second in both columns, and a disaster for Rand, whose exchange with Christie probably didn’t endear him to hawkish Republicans getting a look at him for the first time. Carson’s showing is surprising, though. The most common comment about him last night on Twitter was that he seemed to disappear for most of the debate before ending with a solid closing statement. For someone who wasn’t much of a factor, he made a remarkably good impression:

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Again, Trump is mostly a wash, Paul is a wreck, and Carson scored (as did Rubio to a slightly lesser extent). What explains that? Carson did get plenty of applause from righties for his answer about moving America beyond racial conflict, but judging from the numbers above, the goodwill he earned from it was beyond what anyone might have expected. I’m curious to see if the polls next week replicate those results.

Update: Trumpmania!