Never underestimate the power of schadenfreude to drive television ratings. From Mike Wallace cornering scheming businessmen on 60 Minutes to Cops! to Donald Trump firing smug MBAs on The Apprentice, people have always tuned in to television programs that offer the chance that something bad will happen to people they don’t approve of.
That may be part of what’s been driving the ratings successes of the 2016 Republican presidential debates. Trump may have left his reality television show behind when he decided to launch a presidential run, but he’s brought an element of what makes that kind of TV so popular to the campaign.
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Specifically, it looks as though people who generally don’t approve of the participants in the Republican debates (i.e. Democrats) are tuning in to watch them in very high numbers. And it’s hard not to assume that the possibility of some sort of live-television political train wreck isn’t part of the appeal.
Jeffrey Gottfried and Elisa Shearer, of the Pew Research Center, ran the numbers on how many Republicans have watched both GOP and Democratic debates versus how many Democrats have watched debates from both parties. The difference was striking. Just under half of Republicans who watched their own party debate tuned in to the Democrats as well. But 70 percent of Democrats who watched their own party’s debates also viewed at least one of the GOP events.
“Overall, Republicans are watching presidential debates at higher rates than both Democrats and independents (64 percent, compared with 53 percent of Democrats and 56 percent of independents),” they found. “But among those who do watch debates, seven-in-ten Democrats who have seen at least one watched a Republican debate, compared with about half (49%) of Republicans who watched a Democratic debate.”
Unsurprisingly, the more of their own party’s debates they watched, the more likely Democrats were to have watched the GOP debates as well.
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“Indeed, 89% of Democrats who watched more than one debate watched debates for both parties, much higher than the corresponding share of Republicans (59 percent),” Gottfried and Shearer wrote. “ In contrast, about four-in-ten (41 percent) Republicans who viewed multiple debates only watched those for the Republican candidates, compared with a mere 8 percent of Democrats who watched only Democratic debates.”
The question of whether it is Trump’s presence that has been driving the ratings of the GOP debates – as he insists – will be tested tonight. Trump has very publicly declined to participate in the sixth presidential debate, and that may keep Democrats – and a lot of Republicans – from tuning in.