Early ratings: Trump's audience last night was slightly bigger than Romney's, not as big as McCain's

Early ratings are always lower than the final numbers so there should be some distance between him and Romney by day’s end, but he still might not match McCain. Is that surprising or not? I can see arguments both ways.

The Republican National Convention clearly reached its crescendo on Thursday night. The four-day run-up until Donald Trump’s accepting of the nomination, while giving a strong ratings performance, did not bring any atypical highs for the political meetup. Trump’s speech didn’t change that narrative by much.

With all three broadcast networks and cable news networks now tallied for the 10 p.m. hour, it appears just over 31.5 million viewers tuned into Trump’s extended time on stage…

There are still a few adjustments and adds expected on Friday afternoon. To prove to be a bigger draw than RNC headliners of the recent past, Trump’s final tally will need to be higher than 30.3 million to top Mitt Romney in 2012. The candidate already has that in the big. But with nearly 40 million viewers tuning into John McCain in 2008, that showing will not be matched.

For comparison:

Why is Trump’s Romney-esque rating performance not surprising? Because we’re in the mobile era now. The first iPhone came out in 2007, around the time that year’s primary campaign was starting to roll. The first Android phone came out shortly before the general election. Many news platforms weren’t offering online streaming yet. If you wanted to watch McCain and Obama, you had to turn on your TV; last night you could have watched Trump on YouTube, and many did. Competition for eyeballs from non-news outfits has also expanded remorselessly with platforms like Netflix and Hulu, both of which were in their infancy at the time of the 2008 election. How many people who would have otherwise watched the speech last night decided to watch something on Netflix instead? (Raises hand.) Under the circumstances, comparing ratings for Trump’s speech in 2016 to ratings for McCain’s or even Romney’s is like comparing the ratings for a popular show’s series finale today to the series finale of MASH 30 years ago. Fewer channels then meant a gigantic audience. More channels now means the opposite. Eight years from now, 31 million for a speech may well be unattainable for candidates.

On the other hand, everything I just said was also true last August and yet the first GOP debate with Trump blew the roof off. Unlike last night, that event aired on just one network, Fox News, and still managed 24 million viewers, the biggest audience in Fox’s history and by far the biggest audience for a primary debate in television history. For comparison, the best the Democrats had ever managed to draw up to that point was 10.7 million in April 2008, during the red-hot Obama/Hillary war — and that one had all the advantages of less competition among media that I just described. There was every reason to think Trump would leverage his star power to blow the roof off again last night. Beyond that, neither McCain nor Romney were leading a capital-m Movement with supposedly explosive power to draw in disaffected voters across party lines who haven’t cared about the GOP in decades. If you were a centrist Democrat in 2012, there wasn’t much reason to watch Mitt. If you’re a centrist Democrat or even a Bernie Sanders fan today, there was every reason to watch Trump and hear firsthand whether the news stories you’ve read about him pushing policies to protect working-class jobs is true. I would have guessed that he’d equal McCain at least, and maybe he will once the online numbers are in. But even then, you’re left with the fact that online audiences skew younger and younger adults tilt reliably against Trump in polls. How many votes were actually moved by YouTube last night?

Maybe it’s a simple matter of Trump fatigue among some viewers pushing the numbers lower than everyone expected. Last August the first debate had an irresistible freak-show hook even for non-political people: What the hell’s going to happen when we put the guy from “The Apprentice” onstage with actual senators for an actual political debate? It was like the WWE staging a battle royal with 10 wrestlers plus a live gorilla who might literally tear someone’s head off. Eleven months later, some people are just tired of looking at severed heads. I’ll update with the final numbers when they’re out. Either way, it’s a cinch that Trump’s ratings will be better than Hillary Clinton’s. What sort of sick mind, given the cornucopia of media options now available to Americans, would choose to watch a speaker as dreary as her spoonfeed center-left oatmeal to viewers for 75 minutes? Good lord almighty. There’s not enough booze in the world.