Jon Stewart’s final comedy show was last night. I never did see his program, and I don’t think I missed much. He drew his second-best audience ever, at 3.5 million. As many observers pointed out on Twitter, this was only a small fraction of the 24 million who watched the Republican presidential debate–the largest audience, by far, ever to see a primary debate. Which puts Stewart’s supposedly massive influence in perspective.
The conventional wisdom is that the Republicans’ huge audience was due to Donald Trump’s presence, and no doubt Trump, and the ridiculous amount of publicity he has received, played a role. But I think the appetite for the GOP primary goes much deeper. The end of the Obama administration approaches, and at this point pretty much everyone considers it a disappointment if not a disaster. We live in a time of great anxiety: the prospect of a nuclear Iran is just one of many reasons why Americans are worried about the future.
So I think many millions of Americans are interested in what will come next; more so than would normally be the case the year before a presidential election. A lot of them tuned in last night to see what the Republicans have to offer. I don’t remember a time when there has been so much interest–certainly on the right–in a party’s presidential field.
I have to think that a large majority of those who tuned in were impressed by what they saw. Most Americans had never (or hardly ever) seen Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Scott Walker, Jeb Bush and Chris Christie in action. One or more of those candidates probably seemed like a revelation to most viewers. Mike Huckabee reminded us, and no doubt others, how skillful he can be. Candidates like John Kasich and Ben Carson, in his own way, must have made a good impression on most viewers. And those who liked Rand Paul and Donald Trump coming into the evening probably liked them nearly as well at the end. (Although I would hope that some of Trump’s fans saw the light.)
So it was a good night for the GOP, despite the Fox hosts’ hogging of air time with relentlessly negative questions and recitation of Democratic Party talking points. My guess is that we will see big audiences for the remaining debates, too. Not because of Donald Trump or any other one personality, but because most voters realize that the country is at a crossroads, and needs to do better.