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Highest Rated Presidential Debates 1960 To Present
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Highest Rated Presidential Debates 1960 To Present

With the U.S. financial crisis hanging in the balance, the first debate between Barack Obama and John McCain — originally scheduled for Friday — has taken on unusual importance.  But, how will this first presidential duel of the 2008 election compare with the most-watched debates of the last half-century?

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan’s October 28, 1980 debate claimed the largest television audience — 80.6 million viewers — since 1976, the first year that Nielsen collected TV viewership data for presidential debates. 

George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ross Perot’s October 15, 1992 debate (69.9 million viewers) and Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter’s September 23, 1976 debate (69.7 million viewers) round out the top three.

George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis’s 1988 debates and Ronald Reagan and Walter Mondale’s 1984 debates also made the top 10.

RANK YEAR NETWORK DATE CANDIDATES VIEWERS P2+

(MILLIONS)

1 1980 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 28 Carter – Reagan 80.6
2 1992 ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN Oct. 15 Bush – Clinton – Perot 69.9
3 1976 ABC, CBS, NBC Sept. 23 Ford – Carter 69.7
4 1988 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 13 Bush – Dukakis 67.3
5 1984 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 21 Reagan – Mondale 67.3
6 1992 ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN Oct. 19 Bush – Clinton – Perot 66.9
7 1988 ABC, CBS, NBC Sept. 25 Bush – Dukakis 65.1
8 1984 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 7 Reagan – Mondale 65.1
9 1976 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 6 Ford – Carter 63.9
10 1976 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 22 Ford – Carter 62.7
Note: There were no televised Presidential debates for the years 1972, 1968, and 1964.

Copyright 2004 Nielsen Media Research.

In terms of Nielsen household TV ratings, Richard Nixon and John F. Kennedy’s presidential debates in 1960 dominate Nielsen’s top 10 ranking. 

The two candidates’ October 13, 1960 debate, which drew 61% of all U.S. television households, claimed the top household rating of any presidential debate. 

Nixon and Kennedy’s infamous September 26, 1960 debate — the first-ever televised presidential debate — ranked second, with 59.5% of all American TV households tuning in.   

Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan’s October 28, 1980 debate was the only non-Kennedy vs. Nixon debate to crack the top five. 

All three of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter’s 1976 debates also ranked among the top 10 televised presidential debates, in terms of household ratings.

RANK YEAR NETWORK DATE CANDIDATES RATING

(% OF HOUSEHOLDS)

1 1960 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 13 Nixon – Kennedy 61.0
2 1960 ABC, CBS, NBC Sept. 26 Nixon – Kennedy 59.5
3 1960 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 7 Nixon – Kennedy 59.1
4 1980 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 28 Carter – Reagan 58.9
5 1960 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 21 Nixon – Kennedy 57.8
6 1976 ABC, CBS, NBC Sept. 23 Ford – Carter 53.5
7 1976 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 6 Ford – Carter 52.4
8 1976 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 22 Ford – Carter 47.8
9 1992 ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN Oct. 15 Bush – Clinton – Perot 46.3
10 1984 ABC, CBS, NBC Oct. 21 Reagan – Mondale 46.0
Note: There were no televised Presidential debates for the years 1972, 1968, and 1964.

Copyright 2004 Nielsen Media Research.

View complete Nielsen ratings for all televised U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates from 1960 to present.