The first head-to-head debate between the major-party nominees for president takes place Monday night, and the phrase “possibly the most-watched ever” is getting thrown around pretty regularly on cable news and inside political circles.

A huge audience will undoubtedly watch Monday’s debate  between Republican nominee Donald Trump and his Democratic counterpart, Hillary Clinton (even though it’s opposite an NFL game). More than ever? That will be a pretty high bar to clear.

The most-watched debate since 1976* happened in 1980 between Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. It drew 80.6 million viewers — 4 million more than the Super Bowl did that year. Since then, no presidential or vice presidential debate has cracked 70 million viewers.

(*Total viewer figures weren’t compiled for the 1960 debates between John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon. There were no televised general election debates in 1964, 1968 or 1972.)

It’s safe to say that no 2016 debate will reach Super Bowl levels — last year’s game averaged nearly 112 million viewers. It’s not out of the realm of possibility, given the endless campaign coverage and high interest in seeing the contrasting styles of Clinton and Trump, that Monday’s debate will get over the 70 million mark. The 1980 record is probably safe, but it might be close.

Here’s the total audience for the general election debates in each of the past five presidential years.

Year First debate Second debate Third debate VP debate
1996 46.1 million 36.3 million ** 26.6 million
2000 46.6 million 37.5 million 37.7 million 28.5 million
2004 62.4 million 46.7 million 51.1 million 43.5 million
2008 52.4 million 63.2 million 56.5 million 69.9 million
2012 67.2 million 65.6 million 59.2 million 51.4 million

**Only two televised debates were staged in 1996.

Source: The Nielsen Company.

Posted by:Rick Porter

Rick Porter has been covering TV since the days when networks sent screeners on VHS, one of which was a teaser for the first season of "American Idol." He's left-handed, makes a very solid grilled cheese and has been editor of TV by the Numbers since October 2015. He lives in Austin.

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