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Will Biden and Trump’s First Debate Be a Summer Blockbuster?

Will Biden and Trump’s First Debate Be a Summer Blockbuster?

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Hi there, and welcome to On Politics. I’ve asked my colleague Michael Grynbaum, who covers media for The New York Times, to answer a big question: How many people are going to watch Thursday’s debate? Then, I’ll share an exclusive poll about an issue that may come up, and we check in with our friends at “The Run-Up.” — Jess Bidgood

Back in September 2016, the anticipation for the first televised matchup between former President Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton was so high, I described it as the “Super Bowl of politics.” Magazine editors in Paris for Fashion Week planned to wake up at 3 a.m. local time to watch. A Texas movie house sold out a live screening. And residents of Nantucket, Mass., showed so much interest in a debate watch party at the local Dreamland Theater that a police officer was hired for crowd control.

In the end, 84 million people watched that debate, a record.

On Monday, I checked in with the Dreamland to see if it was planning a repeat showing when Trump and President Biden face off for their debate on Thursday.

“Interest has dwindled significantly since then,” a theater employee wrote in an email. While he left open the possibility of future watch parties, on this particular Thursday, the theater will be showing a summer blockbuster instead.

The prime-time matchup on Thursday has the potential to seize the nation’s attention, at least for its 90-minute duration. For the first time in decades, a single network, CNN, will oversee the debate, and it will be simulcast on nearly every major channel, along with oodles of news sites. A poll this month showed that 65 percent of registered voters planned to “watch all or most of the debate.”

But, if the Dreamland is any indication, the event may not have quite the same reach as debates past. Prognosticators in the TV news business are expecting Thursday’s audience to be between 30 million and 70 million viewers — a huge range but nevertheless lower than the Clinton-Trump matchup, even if it does turn out to be the most-watched event of this campaign season.

In our fractured, frazzled media age, people still tune in en masse to watch presidential debates — but there are a few factors working against Thursday’s matchup.

The debate is occurring far earlier in the year than usual, and many Americans are away on summer vacations, or going out in the evening to take advantage of the longer daylight hours. In September and October, when debates traditionally happen, overall TV viewership is higher than in June, according to the ratings gurus at Nielsen. (Their second debate is scheduled for Sept. 10.)

And the rise of streaming services and collapse of cable TV means that our collective focus is scattered like never before. This year’s Oscars drew 19.5 million viewers, less than the audience for some regular season N.F.L. games.

Another challenge is the trepidation that many Americans feel about this particular campaign — an unease that has deprived TV networks (and news organizations) of the usual election year “bump.”

“Voters are not happy about this upcoming election,” Nate Cohn, The Times’s in-house polling expert, said earlier this year. In late February, voters described themselves as “frustrated,” “anxious,” “scared,” and dissatisfied with their choice of candidates, in a survey by The Times and Siena College.

Judging by the recent Republican primary race, interest in the current campaign has fallen off from previous cycles. The first Republican contest, last August, scored 12.8 million viewers; the next drew 9.5 million. Then the numbers started to plummet: 7.5 million in November, 4.1 million in December, and, finally, 2.6 million in January — fewer viewers than an average episode of Fox News’s “The Five.”

Of course, those debates suffered from a pair of programming deficiencies that would daunt any TV producer: no star and no suspense. Mr. Trump refused to appear, and the Republican primary ended up not being much of a contest, with the former president taking a resounding win.

There is more uncertainty about how Thursday’s Biden-Trump meeting, which will be moderated by the CNN anchors Dana Bash and Jake Tapper, will shake out.

CNN is hopeful that the debate could be its most-watched program in its 44 years. That could happen, and the network might still be beaten in the Nielsen race by competitors carrying a simulcast: Fox News, for instance, attracted the largest live audience of any network for Mr. Biden’s State of the Union address in March.

That speech was seen by about 32.2 million people overall, up 18 percent from the 2023 audience of 27.3 million. That made it among the year’s highest-rated telecasts.

Polling suggests that the likelihood of watching the debate increases with age. Roughly three-quarters of adults over 60 said they would tune in, versus less than half of 18-to-29 year-olds, according to a survey conducted this month by NPR, PBS and Marist College. That could bode well for the Nielsen ratings that mostly measure traditional TV audiences, who tend to be older. (Accurately gauging viewership online and on social media is difficult.)

“The people who vote are the people who still watch TV, god bless ’em,” said Tammy Haddad, the Washington social doyenne who is hosting a debate watch party near Dupont Circle on Thursday. “I think they will come through again for the most important political event of the election season.”

BY THE NUMBERS

One issue that might come up onstage on Thursday is whether or not Trump would, in a second term, use the power of the presidency to pardon the people convicted of participating in the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

It’s something the former president has floated on multiple occasions as he has made Jan. 6 increasingly central to his re-election bid. His base seems to like the idea. But it’s not broadly popular with voters, a new poll finds.

The poll, conducted by YouGov America on behalf of the group United to Protect Democracy and shared exclusively with me, found that 59 percent of voters oppose pardons for Jan. 6-related crimes generally, while 77 percent of voters, including a majority of Republican voters, oppose pardons of those convicted of assaulting law enforcement officers that day. (My colleague Alan Feuer reported in April that nearly 500 people had been charged with assaulting police officers.)

A majority of voters agreed with the idea that Jan. 6 pardons could encourage future political unrest, although those results were politically lopsided. Just 31 percent of Republicans agreed with those concerns, compared with 92 percent of Democrats. But, crucially, 57 percent of independent voters agreed with those concerns — figures that show they resonate with a key slice of the electorate.

The poll surveyed 1,200 registered voters living in battleground congressional districts. And to be clear, other polling shows this is not an issue that is top-of-mind for most voters, who rank issues like the economy as bigger concerns. But the results could still bolster the case for the Biden campaign to focus on the issue of democracy — and underscore the way some of the causes beloved by Trump’s base could be a problem for him in November’s election.

Jess Bidgood

QUOTED AND NOTED

“Even if the Democrats are for it and the Republicans aren’t, that doesn’t sway my opinion. I don’t look at it politically, I look at it as a woman.”

— Judy McClanahan, Bullhead City, Ariz.

In Arizona, Democrats are hoping that, two years after the fall of Roe v. Wade, a push to put abortion rights on the ballot in the state this fall will lift President Biden. But the issue might not be so straightforward, my colleagues at “The Run-Up” recently found. Voters like Judy McClanahan, who signed a petition in support of the ballot measure, say they’ll turn out both for Trump — who appointed three of the Supreme Court justices who overturned Roe v. Wade — and for abortion rights. Listen to Part One and Part Two of their reporting here.



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