Fox News debate draws higher ratings than the last debate, but still second-lowest of the cycle

These are preliminary ratings, with final data to come later today, but the two sides of the Trump divide are already arguing over whether the numbers confirm that Trump is driving the audience for the debates or disprove it. Variety’s best guess as to the total audience last night is 12 million people, which is half of what the first GOP debate last year drew but many times better than the one or two million viewers Trump’s campaign manager speculated it might draw. I don’t know what he was thinking in setting expectations that low. An average episode of Kelly’s own show last week during the same 9 p.m. ET timeslot in which the debate ran drew 2.6 million.

I also don’t know why people are keyed into national ratings for debate held in Iowa and aimed at Iowa voters four days before Iowa caucuses. Any Iowa ratings available yet?

Fox’s Trump-less debate had an 8.4 household rating, according to early Nielsen data from so-called metered markets…

By comparison, two of the cable channels that showed parts of Trump’s event, CNN and MSNBC, had about a quarter of Fox’s audience combined…

The most recent GOP debate, televised two weeks ago on the Fox Business Network, had a household rating of 7.4. So Thursday’s debate was bigger — but not by much…

The ratings held pretty steady between 9 and 11 p.m. Eastern, which means the audience was loyal even though Trump was absent.

The most interesting detail there is that the numbers didn’t drop off as the debate wore on, as you’d might expect if a bunch of Trump fans tuned in at the start, discovered he wasn’t there, and gradually peeled off. Given Trump’s media reach, most viewers (and non-viewers) probably knew beforehand that he wouldn’t be there and made their decision about whether to watch before it started. I’m surprised that the ratings for Trump’s rally are as low as they are, though, given that Trump fans obviously had a reason to tune in and produce eye-popping ratings to give him something new to crow about vis-a-vis Megyn Kelly and Fox. As it is, him pulling a quarter of Fox’s audience is roughly proportional (maybe a bit less at this point) to his overall share of the vote in Republican polls, and that’s not accounting for regular CNN and MSNBC viewers who watched out of habit. The liberal magazine Mother Jones was at the Trump rally last night and interviewed attendees, and they claim that they found a lot of people who like Trump and are curious about him — but few who say they’re going to caucus for him. Why didn’t Trump fans tune into, and turn out for, his rally for vets to give him bragging rights over Fox?

If you’re looking to spin Fox’s numbers as good, that’s easy. The fact that they beat the January 14th debate, which Trump attended, suggests that the audience for these things is involved in the overall race, not just in Trump or in rubbernecking at the Trump carnival. His support is overstated! He’s not the secret ingredient to drawing a crowd, at least not since the novelty of seeing him onstage with professional politicians wore off. Plus, why should anyone be surprised that later debates are underperforming earlier ones in the ratings now that the country’s had a chance to watch these same people square off multiple times? If you’re looking to spin Fox’s numbers as bad, that’s easy too. It’s no great shakes that this debate beat the last one, which was carried on a network (Fox Business) with far less media reach. As CNN noted in the write-up excerpted above, a better comparison for a Fox News debate would be the last debate held on CNN, on December 15th. That one drew a 12.2 rating and 18 million viewers, roughly 50 percent better than Fox’s preliminary figures. Fox also had various factors adding hype to this one — the proximity of the caucuses, the fact that the candidates are now engaged in open warfare with Trump and each other, and the suspense about how Kelly and the Fox moderators would handle Trump’s absence — and still underperformed CNN. Also, Fox’s numbers may look even worse a month from now since the next two debates are scheduled to be held on broadcast networks, which themselves have greater reach than cable. ABC is moderating the New Hampshire debate next Saturday night and CBS is in charge of the South Carolina debate a week later on February 13th. And needless to say, if Trump wins Iowa, the media frenzy over the fact that he really does stand a serious shot at being nominee will probably further goose casual viewers to tune in for those two.

Here’s Frank Luntz’s focus group grumbling about Trump’s absence last night. Exit question: Glass half-full or half-empty with Fox’s ratings for Trump fans?

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