From news coverage to press appearances and even commercials, TV is a key battleground for presidential candidates in election years. But it’s the televised presidential debates where candidates actually face off as November approaches—and historically, high numbers of voters have tuned in to watch the verbal sparring matches.
When looking at the more than 50-year history of household viewership for televised presidential debates, these high-profile political events have had some of their largest audiences in the 21st century.
Six of the top 10 debates by household viewership numbers occurred within one of the last three election years. Of those six, President Barack Obama has appeared in five of them—and the initial debate of the 2012 election, featuring him against Mitt Romney, currently holds the top spot.
Until the 2012 election, the top spot once belonged to the historic 1980 debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. At 45.8 million households, the lone presidential debate of the 1980 election maintained the top spot for nearly 32 years!
With another historic and highly contested presidential election upon us, the power of televised presidential debates still remains strong. Such events have maintained a large following in American households since the first televised debate during the 1960 election and remain a prime time TV powerhouse over 50 years later. If recent trends hold true, more Americans may let their future commander-in-chief enter their homes via television set in 2016.