The messy showdown between Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Fox Thursday evening might not have produced much beyond renewed partisan sniping, but it managed to draw a healthy sum of 4.75 million viewers who tuned in live.
The 90-minute debate, intended for the two prominent governors to offer competing visions for the country, was host Sean Hannity’s most viewed telecast of the year, according to a Fox News release. And approximately 700,000 also tuned in for a replay of the crowdless show later in the night.
The event saw DeSantis outline his array of conservative policies he has enacted in Florida, while Newsom generally sought to characterize DeSantis negatively and gave a full-throated defense of President Joe Biden’s administration and his reelection campaign. And DeSantis was able to get some help from Hannity, whose longtime conservative punditry showed on occasion through his guise as a neutral moderator to give the Floridian a runway to detail his accomplishments.
For the two attention-hungry governors — one of them looking for a spark to a flailing presidential campaign and the other with more national ambitions — the primetime matchup was a good opportunity to spread their respective messages. But for DeSantis, he’ll need much more than a good ratings night to make a vast gap in the polls in the presidential race, with Donald Trump polling upwards of 40-50 percentage points ahead of him.
The governors’ debate had no party infrastructure backing or promoting it, unlike the ongoing series of debates in the GOP presidential primary contest. The three Republican presidential debates in recent months drew 12.8 million, 9.5 million and 6.9 million viewers respectively. Without Trump, the frontrunner and frequent crowd favorite, the debates — two hosted by Fox networks and third by NBC — have done little to change the trajectory of a race that has remained stubbornly stagnant, save some shifts largely constrained to single percentage points.
Still, DeSantis had to stand out in previous debates against several other candidates, many of them with similarly conservative messages to him. The Democrat vs. Republican dynamic on Thursday night gave him a clearer purview for him to cut through to potential voters, as he stood in sharp contrast on essentially every single issue with the Democrat on stage with him.
In early November, fellow Republican presidential contender Vivek Ramaswamy had a small-scale debate with Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) in another play for attention in the Trump-dominated race.
NewsNation will host the fourth debate in the series next Wednesday. But its reach compared to the major television networks won’t give the not Trumps of the field too large of a pedestal. The RNC has not announced public plans for a fifth debate.