As we near Election Day 2020, Comscore took a closer look at the viewing trends in select battleground markets during this year’s unprecedented debate and election season to gain insights into where these viewers may be tuning in as results come in on election night.
We analyzed viewing in the following markets: Dayton, Detroit, Duluth, Flint, Greenville-New Bern, Madison, Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Orlando, Panama City, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, Tucson, Wilkes Barre-Scranton (Biden’s home market) and Youngstown.
Joe Biden and Donald Trump squared off for the first time on the debate stage on September 29, 2020 in an event marked by frequent interruptions and heated exchanges. Content aside, many Americans tuned in just to watch the first presidential candidates’ debate. The debate was broadcast on all major broadcast affiliates (including Univision and Telemundo, where available) and on a few cable news networks, such as CNN, FOX News and MSNBC. For the markets we looked at, the sum of ratings across all channels on which the debate was telecast was between 30 and 50 ratings points (meaning approximately 30-50% of each market tuned into the debate on an average minute basis).
The sum of ratings was the highest in the Rust Belt, in markets like Detroit, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, Wilkes Barre-Scranton, Minneapolis and Dayton. Ratings were comparatively lower in Sun Belt states like Arizona (Phoenix and Tucson markets) and North Carolina (Raleigh and Greenville markets).
When looking at these markets in aggregate, we see that FOX News had the highest rating during the debate telecasts. Local broadcast affiliates were right behind FOX News in the aggregated rank, with other cable news networks, such as CNN and MSNBC, ranking lower versus network affiliates that aired the debate.
Even though FOX News was the most-watched source for debate coverage cumulatively, the top-ranked station for watching the debate in 10 of the 16 markets we looked at was a broadcast affiliate.
FOX News was a consistent leading source for political content across all these markets, and as expected, that viewing was driven by Republican voters with many independent voters also watching that channel. Democrat viewing was more dispersed to multiple sources. We will talk about this in more detail shortly.
Digging a little deeper, we can also look at these data by political party affiliation, and whether a viewer was an independent or an unregistered voter. Unsurprisingly, partisan viewers tuned into the debate at a higher rate than the market overall (meaning the sum of ratings for Democrat and Republican voters was higher than the overall market average), except in Greenville-New Bern, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, Tucson and Youngstown, where Republican voters tuned in at a lower rate than the market overall. In general, independent voters were less likely tune in than the market overall, except in Orlando, Phoenix and Pittsburgh.
In most of the markets Comscore looked at, the sum of ratings among Democrat voters was marginally higher than the sum of ratings of Republican voters.
This was the case in all selected markets except in Minneapolis, Milwaukee, Flint, Duluth and Dayton, where Republican voters had a higher sum of ratings than Democrat voters. On average, the Democrat voters in the selected markets had a sum of ratings that was about 5% higher than the sum of ratings for Republican voters.
Looking at the channel-level data also by political segment, we find that Republican voters tuned into one channel more than any others: FOX News. Across all the selected markets, FOX News received 36% of the viewership from households with Republican voters.
ABC came in second with 18% of the viewership from Republican voter households. The viewership of Democrats was much more disparate, dispersed more evenly among channels, usually without a cable news network in the top-rated channels—ABC received 23% of their viewership, NBC received 19% with both CNN and MSNBC receiving 14% each. (Democrat voter households split their cable news viewing between these two networks.)
Madison, WI was an outlier of sorts where FOX News wasn’t even the second-highest ranked channel among Republican voters; it was third, after the local NBC and ABC affiliates. The rating for FOX News among Republican voters in Madison was 8.6. The average rating for FOX News among Republican voters across the selected markets was 15.3. This illustrates the general Democrat leanings of what is known as a liberal college town.
Among independent voters in the selected markets, FOX News and the local ABC affiliate were tied for the highest-ranked channel for watching the debate—representing a perfect tie between the overall top-watched channels among Democrats and Republicans. Each received 21% of the share of viewing from Independent voting households.
As noted earlier, FOX News was unmatched among other channels for the frequency and intensity with which one political party’s viewers tuned in to the debate. In the selected local markets, FOX News captured more than a third of all Republican debate watchers. The only markets where FOX News did not capture at least a third of Republican voters were in Minneapolis (10%), Madison (21%), Milwaukee (25%) and Phoenix (32%). More than a third of Republicans watched the debate on FOX News in Dayton (40%), Detroit (33%), Flint (38%), Greenville-New Bern (47%), Orlando (38%), Panama City (48%), Pittsburgh (41%), Raleigh (37%), Tucson (33%), Wilkes Barre-Scranton (40%) and Youngstown (41%).
Outside of FOX News, only one channel in any of the selected markets captured more than one-third of local voters from any political party, including independent or unregistered viewers. The ABC affiliate in Wilkes Barre-Scranton, WNEP, captured 45% of Democrat voters during the debate, as it did 35% of independent voters and 39% of those that are unregistered. WNEP in general is a strong station, garnering a 39% share of GRPs amongst these same network affiliates and cable networks during the entire October 2020 broadcast month.
In a first-of-its-kind move and in lieu of a second debate, Joe Biden and Donald Trump each participated in separate town halls broadcast at the same time, by ABC and NBC, respectively. Instead of watching both candidates on the same stage, viewers had to decide which town hall to watch live or flip back and forth between the two.
Despite, or perhaps because of, the dueling town halls, sums of ratings were lower in every market we examined.
Again, we saw that the sum of ratings for both town halls were the highest in the Rust Belt, in markets including Detroit, Duluth, Madison and Wilkes Barre-Scranton. Ratings were noticeably lowest in both Arizona markets we looked at, Phoenix and Tucson, at sums of just 13 and 13.3, respectively.
The Trump town hall was higher-rated than the Biden town hall in every selected market except for Flint, Phoenix and Tucson, where the Biden town hall ranked higher, and Madison, Raleigh and Wilkes Barre-Scranton, where both were nearly tied.
The higher ratings of NBC’s town hall with Donald Trump in the battleground markets comes even though ABC’s town hall with Joe Biden ran 30 minutes longer, and presumably captured more viewers once there wasn’t a competing live town hall.
This follows a national trend, in which the Trump town hall received slightly higher ratings, about one rating point higher, than the Biden town hall across the nation.
This was amplified within our select markets, where the ratings difference was about a point and a half. Ratings for both town halls were still higher in our selected markets than the national average.
When we look at viewership of the town halls by political party (as well as independent and unregistered viewers), we begin to see some patterns. The markets that have frequently been outliers in this town hall analysis—either because of low viewership overall, or because of viewer preference for the Biden town hall— Phoenix, Tucson, Flint and Wilkes Barre-Scranton, are also the only markets where the Biden town hall rated higher than the Trump town hall with independent and unregistered viewers—perhaps a sign that undecided voters in these markets are more interested in learning further about Biden before making up their mind.
When it comes to which political party's viewers tuned in most, our battleground markets are split.
Democrat voters tuned in at a higher rate than Republican voters in Madison, Orlando, Panama City, Phoenix, Pittsburgh, Raleigh, Tucson and Wilkes Barre-Scranton. Republican voters tuned in at a higher rate than Democrat voters in Dayton, Detroit, Duluth, Flint, Greenville-New Bern, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Youngstown.
The above chart shows the percentage of a party’s voters that watched the opposing candidate’s debate.
It's no surprise that in virtually every market we examined, Republicans watched Trump's town hall more than Biden's, and Democrats watched Biden's town hall more than Trump's.
There were, however, three exceptions to this: in Greenville, NC, and Youngstown, more Democrat voters watched Trump’s town hall than Biden’s town hall. Similarly, in Tucson, more Republican voters watched Biden’s town hall than Trump’s town hall. While an exception to the rule, there were other instances in which one political party’s viewers watched the opposing candidate’s town hall near as much as their own candidate’s.
The second and final presidential debate of the 2020 season was starkly different in many ways from the first—namely, the more subdued and civil nature of the candidates (perhaps partially influenced by the new ability to mute candidates’ microphones outside of their speaking turn). But differences also reflected in how viewers in these markets tuned in to watch.
Across every single battleground market we examined, it was clear that “debate fatigue” had set in by the second debate. Sums of ratings were down in every market, some by as much as nearly 20%. Wilkes Barre-Scranton, Panama City and Pittsburgh saw the largest declines.
Another factor that sets the final presidential debate apart from the first was the notable competing programming: FOX aired a Thursday Night Football game instead of the debate. When factoring FOX’s Thursday Night Football telecast into the mix, debate-timed programming on broadcast affiliates and select cable news networks actually increased in 10 of the 16 markets. Including FOX’s football coverage alongside other channels’ debate coverage does not paint the full picture of debate viewership, and the change in viewership between debates, as referenced above, but it does provide some color on just how much debate-alternative programming buoyed ratings during primetime on October 22, 2020.
During the first debate, FOX affiliates had, on average, the lowest ratings of debate coverage across the markets we examined. When airing the Thursday Night Football game instead of debate coverage, FOX saw increased ratings in 15 of the 16 markets we examined. FOX ratings more than doubled in 11 of the 16 selected markets, and in some markets FOX ratings increased from the first debate by more than 300%.
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