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Ratings drop for final presidential debate with 63 million viewers

The decline in ratings comes amid reports that voter enthusiasm is at record-high levels.
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About 63 million people tuned in to watch Thursday night's final presidential debate between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden on television, according to ratings data from Nielsen.

Ratings were down from the first presidential debate, which drew about 73.1 million viewers. The single vice presidential debate between Sen. Kamala Harris and Vice President Mike Pence had about 57.9 million people tuning in, making it the second-most-watched vice presidential debate.

Viewership was measured across 15 networks that carried the debate live as well as some digital streaming. Neither the 2016 nor the 2020 figures account for viewership on digital platforms like Facebook and YouTube. Nielsen only measures connected television and streaming viewership of programs that carry linear advertising so there’s no widely accepted metric that accounts for all the ways the debate could have been streamed.

The ratings drop follows similar declines for this year’s Republican and Democratic conventions. While viewership for the first presidential debate was higher, it was also down from 2016's first debate between Trump and Hillary Clinton, which had a record 84 million viewers.

The drop in presidential debate ratings comes amid reports that voter enthusiasm is at record high levels. As of Thursday, more than 50 million people had already voted.

“Don’t mistake debate enthusiasm for voter enthusiasm. The first debate was a turnoff, and I think we saw that in ratings for the second,” said Dave Wasserman, an election analyst for NBC News and editor of the Cook Political Report. “By now, most voters have made up their minds, and there are fewer undecided viewers than there were four years ago.”

The final debate between Clinton and Trump in 2016 saw a ratings drop from the first but still attracted about 71.6 million viewers, according to Nielsen.

Wasserman said Trump’s “attacks on moderators and the debate commission don’t do much to encourage his own supporters to tune in.” But he noted the country is still on track for strong voter turnout.

Thursday night's debate was the first to involve a mute button that cut off a candidate’s microphone when it was their opponent’s turn to answer a question. The move was a response to the first debate, which was marked by frequent interruptions by Trump.

NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker, who moderated Thursday night’s debate, received praise for her questions and ability to maintain order throughout. Even Trump, who had earlier criticized her, praised Welker during the debate.

This year there were only two presidential debates after a third was canceled because Trump pulled out when it was moved to a virtual format after he tested positive for Covid-19 and was hospitalized.

Biden then announced he would participate in a town hall on ABC, and NBC announced it would hold a town hall with Trump on the same night at the same time. That decision sparked criticism that it was not in the best interest of the American public to have the two town halls overlap.

Biden won the town hall ratings showdown with about 14.1 million viewers to Trump’s 13.5 million, reflecting the ratings success Biden has had in previous town halls.