After last week’s Democratic presidential debate, it is evident that voters who favor both parties are engaged in the 2016 race at historic levels.
The first two Republican debates garnered 24 and 23 million viewers respectively. This is a major increase from the 2012 race, where the highest viewed Republican debate attracted only about 7.6 million viewers.
Of equal importance, the undercard debates between the bottom candidates garnered 6.1 million viewers, increasing slightly to 6.3 at the second debate. This means that relative unknowns, like Lindsey Graham, George Pataki, and Bobby Jindal, nearly outperformed the likes of former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and the eventual nominee Mitt Romney.
Even factoring in the buzz surrounding celebrity candidate Donald Trump and the unprecedented number of participants, this is a massive increase. With the Democratic debate now behind us, we see democratic leaning voters showing historic engagement as well.
While the much talked-about Clinton-Obama debates attracted a little over 10 million viewers on their best night last week, democrats drew the attention of 15.8 million viewers.
This was a massive win for CNN, since the debate outperformed the recent season premiere of The Walking Dead. Non-democrats are of course welcome to speculate whether this means the debate was more ghastly than the popular horror program.
While Independent Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has created waves in the democratic primary, it is somewhat shocking that last week outdrew the 2008 matchups between the former first lady and future president.
The high viewership is somewhat understandable. While democrats had far fewer participants, democratic leaning viewers were given a candidate for everyone.
Each faction of the Democratic Party was well represented on stage. Former Senator Jim Webb, and former Governor Lincoln Chaffee, provided more conservative alternatives to Clinton and Sanders.
When it comes to boots on the ground, voters are showing high levels of engagement as well. In 2012, President Obama fell far short of matching the massive crowds of 100,000 that he could once draw; Republican Mitt Romney struggled as well, not surpassing 30,000 until the tail end of the campaign.
With the 2016 race just beginning, Sanders and Trump have both already held rallies with attendance in the same ballpark of those held in 2012. While pundits have been predicting the collapse of the more unorthodox candidates like Trump, Carson and Sanders for months now, it is obvious that something is fueling this increase in engagement, and it is likely their presence in the race has something to do with it.
While smart money is still behind the more mainstream candidates, if this level of engagement holds, we may well see an increase in primary turnout, as well as a different breed of primary voters showing up to the polls. How this prospect will impact the race is of course yet to be seen.

Kevin Spann
Political Columnist

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