Regardless of who wins the election (and please let it end today) TV ratings for the news broadcasts covering the event are likely to be robust. Unlike many long term trends of TV watching (that you can examine in our Reference category), TV ratings for Presidential election nights have shown an upward trend over the last 44 years. The general election cycle pattern has been the significant drops for TV ratings during elections where a sitting President is up for re-election compared to the election before ('72 vs. '68, '84 vs. '80, '96 vs. '92, and '04 vs. '00). The notable exception to that was 1992 which saw a ratings spike as Bill Clinton defeated George HW Bush during his re-election attempt.
With the significant TV ratings increases in the debates this election cycle, it's easy to predict record TV ratings tonight, any less than 45 million aggregate households would be a big surprise to me. And while I think news websites have improved significantly, an election is still something I think most Americans want to watch on television.
So it's easy to project the real winner tonight being TV ratings of all kinds. As to predicting the winner of the election itself? It's all in the Freshness.
Full Election Night TV Ratings Data, 1960-2004:
|Election Night||Networks||Combined||Combined Households|
|1960||ABC, CBS, NBC||65.7||29.796|
|1964||ABC, CBS, NBC||55.7||29.311|
|1968||ABC, CBS, NBC||58.5||34.076|
|1972||ABC, CBS, NBC||45.4||29.419|
|1976||ABC, CBS, NBC||51.6||36.739|
|1980||ABC, CBS, NBC||46.4||37.074|
|1984||ABC, CBS, NBC||35.9||30.479|
|1988||ABC, CBS, NBC||25.9||23.414|
|1992||ABC, CBS, NBC||39.8||36.900|
|1996||ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN||25.8||24.940|
|2000||ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, CNN, FOXNC, MSNBC||40.2||40.914|
|2004||ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, FOXNC, MSNBC||34.5||37.856|
Source: NIELSEN MEDIA RESEARCH; Nielsen Tunes into Politics 1992, NTI Television Audience, 1960 and 1964 NTI Pocketpieces.