Trump-less Fox News Republican debate draws better-than-expected 12.8 million viewers

Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley speak during a Republican presidential primary debate hosted by FOX News Channel Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Morry Gash)
Businessman Vivek Ramaswamy and former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley during the Republican presidential primary debate hosted by Fox News. (Morry Gash / Associated Press)

During the 2016 race for the White House, then-candidate Donald Trump was responsible for making the Republican primary debates must-watch television events.

But even without Trump onstage, Fox News was able to attract the largest cable TV audience for a non-sports program so far this year with its Wednesday showdown between the candidates for the 2024 GOP presidential nomination.

An average of 12.8 million viewers watched the event telecast from Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, according to Nielsen. The two-hour program was simulcast on Fox News and its sister channel Fox Business Network.

The TV audience was larger than what any Republican presidential primary debate drew during the 2012 campaign season, four years before Trump emerged as the main attraction. It also surpassed the audience of 12.5 million for Fox News' January 2016 primary debate held in Iowa, which Trump skipped as well.

An average of 5.05 million viewers watched a Fox News GOP debate on the comparable date of Aug. 11, 2011. The network's second debate in that cycle, on Sept. 22, 2011, averaged 6.1 million viewers. (Mitt Romney became the Republican nominee, losing to Democratic incumbent Barack Obama in the general election.)

The ratings for the first 2024 Republican primary event were not expected to approach the record-setting levels of 2015, when the first appearance by Trump on the debate stage attracted 24 million viewers for Fox News. Cord-cutting has chipped away at the reach of Fox News, which is in 20 million fewer homes than in 2015.

Fox News made the debate available to stream for free on its website and on its subscription streaming service Fox Nation.

Trump attempted to spoil the Fox News debate by sitting for an interview with Tucker Carlson, the network's former top-rated host who was pulled off the air on April 24. Carlson presented the pre-taped interview on X, the social media platform formerly known as Twitter.

Read more: How Jessica Tarlov of 'The Five' became a liberal star on Fox News

Trump made no news during the chat with a sympathetic Carlson, which at times was so low-key it bordered on soporific. There is no metric for video views on X that is comparable with Nielsen numbers, which counts the average number of people watching in any given minute of the program.

X users who came across the Carlson-Trump video on their accounts are counted as a "view" even if they only see a brief moment.

Trump decided to sit out the event, citing his large lead over the rest of the Republican field. He has also expressed irritation with coverage of his 2024 campaign on Fox News, even though the fealty paid to him by some of its on-air talent led to the network paying a $787.5-million settlement in a defamation suit filed by Dominion Voting Systems.

The voting software company claimed it was damaged by Fox News repeatedly presenting Trump's false charges of fraud in the 2020 election. Trump has been indicted in federal court and in the state of Georgia for his efforts to overturn the election. Trump is expected to surrender in Georgia on Thursday.

The Fox News debate, moderated by Washington anchors Martha MacCallum and Bret Baier, was a feisty affair even without Trump, as the candidates attacked a political novice in the race, millennial entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy.

Ramaswamy, who has been climbing in the polls behind Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, was center stage and scored the most time speaking of all the contenders on stage.

Ramaswamy chided his seven opponents as professional politicians whom he described as being bought and paid for by special interests. They fired back, citing his lack of experience and his controversial views on Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

The candidate has said he would cut U.S. aid to Ukraine and believes Russia should be able to keep territory it now holds.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.