Election 2020

Which Candidate Is Leading the Cable TV Town Hall Ratings Race?

While partisans freak out over Bernie Sanders doing Fox and Marianne Williamson getting air time, CNN is trying to catch some more Kamala Harris-type ratings magic


There hasn't been this much angst about cable news networks doing town halls with presidential candidates since (checks notes) seven weeks ago!

Today, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) rocked the left-of-centersphere by agreeing to participate in an April 15 town hall broadcast by Fox News.

This follows yesterday's announcement by CNN that it will airing town halls with Democratic candidates Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (April 9), Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (April 10), former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro (April 11), author Marianne Williamson, and tech entrepeneur Andrew Yang (April 14 each).

Since most conversations about presidential politics and television tend to lack numbers, let's add a few. First, regarding Bernie's allegedly transgressive act of crossing Avenue of the Americas to the hated Fox building, it's important to note that in a presidential primary season currently lacking in competitiveness on the Republican side of the aisle, 18 states have fully open primaries, and four others have semi-open contests, according to this Wikipedia tally. Talking to the other political team makes sense, particularly when there are so many more eyeballs watching Fox than MSNBC and CNN:

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It's also important to remember, as Steve Chapman has reminded us in this space, that "most people don't spend much time watching cable news"—"nearly 230 million adults watch neither" Sean Hannity nor Rachel Maddow, the two biggest names in the genre (well, at least until recently).

Still, there's a reason CNN is so town hall-happy, hosting 10 of 11 such events thus far—the network is seriously ratings-sad:

CNN's average audience between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET in March was 884,000, compared to MSNBC's 2.12 million and Fox's 2.66 million. It's no wonder executives in Atlanta are trying to milk heightened political enthusiasm for all it's worth.

So who's winning the ratings primary so far? First-out-of-the-gate Kamala Harris, by a wide margin, with her 1.96 million viewers on CNN Jan. 28 (still a tad behind MSNBC's 2.35 million and Fox's 2.26 million in the 10 p.m. time slot). Harris is then followed by:

1.4 million Bernie Sanders, CNN, 8 p.m. (behind Fox's 2.96 mil and MSNBC's 1.78)

1.24 million Kirstin Gillibrand, MSNBC, 8 p.m. (Fox 3.17 million, CNN 1.21 million)

1.17 million Amy Klobuchar, CNN, 10 p.m. (Fox 2.56 million, MSNBC 2.46 million)

1.09 million Elizabeth Warren, CNN, 9 p.m. (MSNBC 2.98 million, Fox 2.95 million)

1.04 million Howard Schultz, CNN, 10 p.m. (Fox 2.47 million, MSNBC 2.21 million)

0.93 million Cory Booker, CNN, 10 p.m. (Fox 3.27 million, MSNBC 2.07 million)

0.75 million John Hickenlooper, CNN, 10 p.m. (Fox 2.42 million, MSNBC 2.3 million)

0.55 million Pete Buttigieg, CNN, 9 p.m. Sunday (Fox 1.27 million, MSNBC 1.02 million)

0.53 million Tulsi Gabbard, CNN, 8 p.m. Sunday (Fox 1.04 million)

0.49 million John Delaney, CNN, 7 p.m. Sunday (MSNBC 0.71 million)

Meanwhile, Fox is set to get its feet wet tomorrow night with the widely derided independent not-yet-announced candidate Howard Schultz, at 6:30 p.m. If nothing else, you can bet that Schultz will outdraw whatever airs on CNN.