GOP debate most-watched show in CNN's history

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Dylan Stableford
·Senior Writer
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The Republican debates have drawn NFL-like ratings thanks to Donald Trump. (Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

In the words of one 2016 presidential candidate, ratings for Wednesday’s primetime Republican presidential debate were yuuuuuge.

According to Nielsen data, the three-hour broadcast drew an average of 22.9 million viewers, making it the most-watched program in CNN history, eclipsing the 16.8 million viewers who tuned in to watch Larry King host an informal debate between Al Gore and Ross Perot in 1993. It also shattered the mark for CNN’s previously most-watched presidential primary debate, a 2008 Democratic debate that averaged 8.3 million viewers.

To put these numbers in perspective, the early primary debates during the 2012 presidential campaign drew between 4 million and 5 million viewers. But those contests didn’t have one key element: Donald Trump, who once drew more than 28 million viewers as host of NBC’s “The Apprentice.”

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To put it another way: 22.9 million viewers was more than the 19.9 million the NFL averaged for games on its opening weekend, though not quite as high as the 26.8 million who watched last week’s season opener between the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots on ESPN. (NBC’s “Sunday Night Football” contest between the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys also drew 26.8 million viewers.)

However, the audience for Wednesday’s debate on CNN was slightly lower than it was last month for the first primetime GOP contest in Cleveland. That debate, broadcast by Fox News, averaged 24 million viewers.

But CNN edged Fox News in viewership for its 6 p.m. debate, which was watched by an average of 6.3 million viewers. The so-called “happy hour” debate drew 6.1 million for Fox.

According to CNN, Wednesday’s debate also set a traffic record for its website. At one point, there were 921,000 concurrent users on CNN’s live stream, the network said, “easily making it the most-watched Web stream of a primary debate ever.”

Also helping drive viewership, or at least keeping viewers tuned in: Twitter, where at one point more than 30,000 tweets about the debate were sent per minute.

Here’s what everyone was talking about most during last night’s #CNNDebate. pic.twitter.com/n2TyhV70BO

According to the social network, the most-tweeted candidates of the primetime debate were as follows:

1. Donald Trump - 22.74%
2. Jeb Bush - 8.62%
3. Carly Fiorina - 8.02%
4. Ted Cruz - 3.69 %
5. Ben Carson - 3.63%
6. Rand Paul - 3.04%
7. Marco Rubio - 2.97%
8. Mike Huckabee - 2.83%
9. Chris Christie - 2.58%
10. John Kasich - 1.58%
11. Scott Walker - 1.21%

Fiorina, for her part, gained the most followers.

Candidates who gained the most followers on Twitter during the #CNNDebate: 1. @CarlyFiorina 2. @RealDonaldTrump 3. @JebBush

The most-retweeted honor, however, went to Jeb Bush, whose two-word apology to his mother after admitting he smoked marijuana in his early 20s was shared and favorited more than 24,000 times.

Sorry Mom


Interactive: Where the candidates stand on the issues >>>

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