It’ll be hard to compare TV ratings and online livestreams between the two conventions since the two parties’ demographics are so different, but this isn’t what I would have expected. Democrats skew younger; if either side is more likely to watch online, you’d think it would be liberals.
C-SPAN’s livestream of the first night of the Republican National Convention has attracted nearly 440,000 views, marking a substantial increase over the start of the Democratic National Convention, which drew 76,000 views.
The numbers for Monday night come ahead of traditional TV ratings from Nielsen Media Research, which will be released on Tuesday afternoon.
According to Nielsen, 18.7 million people tuned in to the first night of the virtual Democratic convention from Milwaukee and Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 17, which featured speeches from former first lady Michelle Obama and former Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R).
The TV ratings for Biden’s acceptance speech last Thursday were way down from the ratings for Hillary in 2016 and waaaaay down from the ratings for Trump’s acceptance speech that same year, notes The Hill. Partly that’s not Biden’s fault, as the continual drift towards online media consumption over the past few years means fewer people are watching the conventions on TV in 2020. But partly it is his fault: Whatever Biden’s other qualities, he’s not a showman. No one’s getting a Chris-Matthews-esque tingle up the ol’ leg from watching him.
On the other hand, the featured speaker on night one of the Democratic convention was Michelle Obama, one of the most popular women in America. What are we to make of the fact that she apparently delivered a mere one-sixth of the CSPAN livestream audience that the first night of the GOP convention did?
It could be a straightforward measure of relative enthusiasm. Democrats are famously lukewarm about Biden, Republicans are famously devoted to Trump. Conventions tend to be watched by enthusiastic party members. Maybe not even a visitation from MObama could get Democrats interested in a Biden production the way GOPers are keen for the Trump show. Or, relatedly, and optimistically for the Trump campaign, it’s possible that the sheer spectacle of a Trump pageant might draw many more curious casual viewers than the Democratic counterpart did. Only true believers want to watch Barack Obama lecture about “norms,” but everyone enjoys a good wrestling match.
A more nuanced possibility: Maybe the difference has to do with CSPAN specifically, not online livestreaming generally. That is, maybe Republicans — an older cohort — are more likely to seek out CSPAN when they want live political coverage. Democrats may have opted for a broadcast network feed or just randomly chosen an available livestream of the convention on YouTube after searching for one. Fewer CSPAN viewers doesn’t necessarily mean fewer viewers overall.
There’s another possibility. If the election is a referendum on Trump, and so far it is, then who cares what Democrats have to say? Why watch their production? Why waste eight hours letting them try to convince you to vote Biden when Biden has little to do with your voting considerations? The Republican convention is the only one that matters for the relevant electoral question, “Four more years of Trump, yes or no?” If that’s what explains the discrepancy in the CSPAN livestream numbers then it’s great news for the GOP, since it means some number of undecideds have tuned in to see if Trump can make the sale.
Although whether there are enough undecideds in that group to actually matter polling-wise is a separate question, of course:
Summer 2016 vs. Summer 2020 pic.twitter.com/0ThgaE6n2g
— Steve Kornacki (@SteveKornacki) August 25, 2020
And just as I’m writing this post, this news is breaking:
Overnight ratings for night one of the conventions. Six networks combined, 10-11p ET:
Democratic – 14.6
Republican – 11.6
— Michael Mulvihill (@mulvihill79) August 25, 2020
So maybe Mrs. Obama delivered after all.
There’s other campaign TV drama today unrelated to ratings. The Daily Beast reports that Team Biden is irritated that some of the broadcast networks broke into their coverage yesterday afternoon to carry Trump’s rant live after he was formally nominated by Republican delegates. That recalled 2016, when cable news networks would give him endless hours of free campaign commercials by carrying his speeches live, often from start to finish.
When two of the major broadcast networks—CBS and ABC—broke into their regular programming Monday to carry live portions of President Donald Trump’s largely false musings after his official nomination, departing from their announced policy of giving only a hour of daily airtime to each party’s political convention, the Biden-Harris campaign was not amused…
“It did not go unnoticed,” Biden-Harris campaign spokesman T.J. Ducklo said in a relatively diplomatic statement to The Daily Beast. “Last week, the networks broadcast roughly half of the DNC’s programming. If they plan on using the public airwaves to give the RNC more airtime, I hope they’ll explain to the public why that is.”
Not all Democrats mind, though. Again, if the election is a referendum on Trump, and if Trump’s daily musings thus far have resulted in an eight-point deficit in national polling, then it seems like what Democrats should want is a whole lot more Trump on TV:
Give him all the airtime he wants. 24/7 would be ok. Rarely has someone done that much political damage to themselves just by opening their own trap.
— David Plouffe (@davidplouffe) August 24, 2020
In September 2016 Plouffe gave Hillary Clinton a 100 percent chance of winning and on the day before polls opened predicted that a worst-case scenario for her was 324 electoral votes. So, you know, take his advice for what it’s worth.
Here’s a perfect example of the “spectacle” I mentioned above, the most WWE speech from last night’s proceedings. I think Guilfoyle got tripped up by the format: This would have worked fine before a raucous crowd but in an empty room it felt bizarre. Maybe she concluded that a speech written to be a crowdpleaser could only be delivered in crowdpleaser style, no matter how strange the vibe might be. The result, said Elizabeth Nolan Brown, was “a cross between a televangelist sermon, a Home Shopping Network infomercial, a fascist rally, and a psychotic break.” It was, ah, memorable, at least. Oh, and look out for the part where she slams Democrats for turning California into “a land of discarded heroin needles in parks, riots in streets, and blackouts in homes.” The top-ranking Democrat in California is, of course, Gavin Newsom, a.k.a. Kimberly Guilfoyle’s ex-husband.