Live presidential debates are always fun to watch. They’re a mix of political theater and some hilarious moments when the debaters are tongue tied (remember Rick Perry’s ‘Oops’). Millions of Americans have tuned in to some of the biggest presidential debates in history.
Here’s a look at the top ten most-watched presidential debates. Most of them are in the last two decades.
10. Ronald Reagan vs Walter Mondale, 1984
Image Source: Here & Now
At the second of the presidential debates, President Reagan and Walter Mondale mostly talked about foreign policy and defense. 39.1 million households watched the debate. There were many moments that stood out. One was when Reagan’s age came up, and he threw it back saying he wouldn’t bring up the issue of age to exploit Mondale’s ‘youth and inexperience’. Mondale was 56.
9. Obama-Romney, 2012
Image Source: CNN
Three of President Obama and Mitt Romney’s debates made it to this list of most-watched presidential debates. The third debate was about foreign policy. Obama won the final debate. Unlike the first, he was more forceful in articulating his policies. Romney was okay just surviving.
8. Clinton-Bush, 1992
Image Source: Politico
Two of the Bill Clinton versus George HW Bush debates made it to Nielsen’s top 10 list of most-watched presidential debates. Of course the presence of the third independent candidate Perot on stage was a factor. This was the first time three people shared the live debate stage. Plus, the town hall format had never been used before. Over 42 million households tuned in for the second and third debates, as if they were watching a mini-series over the 9 days. Perot didn’t become president, but many viewers thought he was the winner in the first and final debates.
7. Kerry-Bush, 2004
Image Source: If It’s Hip It’s Here
The John Kerry-George W. Bush debates of 2004 were important because 9/11 had shaken America. As expected, terrorism and Iraq were big issues. One controversy that came up later was a bulge in the back of Bush’s jacket, which many thought was a radio receiver, a defibrillator or a bullet-proof vest. Even Bush’s tailor was called in, who said it was a wrinkle. Well, the mystery remains.
6. Clinton-Bush, 1992
Image Source: History
Whether or not you were happy with Bill Clinton’s time in office, you can’t deny he was a charming speaker. The town hall debate of 1992 was the one where Clinton walked to the edge of the stage and spoke with a voter. This was an iconic moment of one of the biggest presidential debates in history. It revealed Clinton’s ability to connect with voters. And it also confirmed that the Town Hall debate is the best format to reveal a presidential candidate’s abilities.
5. Obama-McCain, 2008
Image Source: Wikia
The 2nd presidential debate for 2008 was a feisty debate in which Obama and McCain faced off in a town hall format. Obama linked McCain to the failed policies of President Bush. McCain counter-attacked and said Obama didn’t understand national security. In the end, most of the 44.4 million households that watched probably agreed that Obama had beaten McCain, at least in rhetoric.
4. Obama-Romney, 2012
Image Source: Latitude News
The second debate between Obama and Romney had fewer viewers than the first. But the number of households that tuned in, says Nielsen, was still a whopping 45.6 million. Obama was better-prepared for this one, and Mitt Romney was struggling to keep his momentum. Plus the town hall format always makes for exciting presidential debates to watch. At the end of it, Romney’s son Tagg said he wanted to take a slug at Obama for the mean things he said about Romney!
3. Carter-Reagan, 1980
Image Source: US News
The presidential debate between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan in 1980 was one of the biggest presidential debates in history for a long time. 80.6 million viewers tuned in to watch. Carter attacked Reagan on his opposition to Medicare, and Reagan’s famous response was “There you go again.” But everyone who was around in 1980 remembers the moment when Reagan looked at the camera and bluntly asked the people if they were better off since Carter’s term.
2. Obama-Romney, First Presidential Debate 2012
Image Source: US News
The first presidential debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney drew 46.2 million households. While we all know what the final results were, viewers at the time agreed that Mitt Romney won the first debate. Romney was aggressive, Obama looked down and often nodded when Romney spoke, and everyone really expected Obama to win. So Romney’s upperhand was all the more glaring.
1. Trump-Clinton Debate, 2016
Image Source: Hollywood Reporter
It’s not a surprise that the first Donald Trump-Hillary Clinton debate broke records for the most-watched presidential debates of all times. 84 million viewers tuned in to watch Trump – who had earlier suggested he’d skip the debates altogether – and the first female presidential candidate battle it out.
At the end of the debate, Trump was being talked about more than Clinton. But it was clear that the lady came out a winner in the war of words. Clinton looked like she was enjoying herself. Trump tried to look calm and presidential, and was often snappish. All of it was better than reality TV.
This wraps up the top ten most watched presidential debates of all times. Do you think these are the biggest presidential debates in history? If not, which ones do you think flew under the radar because Monday night football was on, or an exciting Netflix series?