2024 Election

Fox News GOP Debate Ratings: 12.8 Million Tuned In For a Trump-Free Face-Off 

The numbers surpassed industry expectations, even if down from the record-setter with Trump that kicked off the 2016 election cycle. 
Bret Baier Fox News anchor tries to silence the audience during the Republican primary presidential debate hosted by Fox...
Bret Baier, Fox News anchor, tries to silence the audience during the Republican primary presidential debate hosted by Fox News in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, US, on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023.By Al Drago/Bloomberg/Getty Images.

The ratings are in for the first Republican primary debate, hosted by Fox News. The Milwaukee event brought in 12.8 million viewers across Fox News, Fox Business, streaming, and digital, according to the latest from Nielsen, surpassing expectations from media watchers and industry insiders. The numbers suggest that the public has an interest in the 2024 GOP field aside from Donald Trump. The former president and current frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination skipped the event, opting for a pre-taped interview with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson.

For the first GOP primary debate in 2015, Fox brought in 23.9 million viewers—the highest-rated presidential primary debate ever. The network owed its success largely to Trump, who only two months after descending down the escalator ride was surging in the polls and already upending traditional politics.

Eight years later, Trump is once again the frontrunner, but this time was missing from the debate stage. “Between cable cord-cutting trends, streaming competition, media fragmentation, and a politically exhausted public at large, a primary debate with Trump in 2023 would be lucky to land 10 million live via-TV viewers,” Brian Stelter wrote for Vanity Fair’s debate live blog on Wednesday evening, betting that Fox would average half of that—which is roughly twice as many as its highest-rated shows bring on a typical night—given Trump’s absence. Stelter also polled several TV industry insiders, who predicted between four and eight million.

It wasn’t a surprise that Trump didn’t show, given he had spent the weeks leading up to the debate publicly questioning the point of debating when he’s so far ahead in the polls. He often invoked ratings while doing so, suggesting that he didn’t want to give Fox News the satisfaction as he attacked the network over what he saw as negative or insufficient coverage. He once again invoked ratings during his counterprogram with Carlson, which aired on X. "We'll get bigger ratings using this crazy forum that you are using than probably the debate," Trump told Carlson. As of this writing, the video has 236 million views. 

But comparing Fox viewers and X views isn’t apples to apples. As Reuters noted Wednesday evening—by which point the video had drawn more than 74 million views—X’s view counts include anyone who scrolled past the video or watched for a few seconds, as well as those who watched the entire interview.