2 Million Protestor Myth

Brendan Nyhan does a good job of documenting the spread of an Internet meme, the “2 million” figure that briefly circulated among conservative blogs about the size of Saturday’s Tea Party protest.   What’s amusing, though, is that he himself [bases his post on a Media Matters analysis that] falls for the “the DC Fire Department gave the official total of 60-75,000” meme.   In reality, neither the DC Fire Department nor any other agency offers estimates, official or otherwise anymore.  They haven’t for years.

As best I can figure, the “60-75,000” figure is a wild ass guess offered by one guy:

Pete Piringer, public affairs officer for the D.C. Fire and Emergency Department, said the local government no longer provides official crowd estimates because they can become politicized. But the day of the rally, Piringer unofficially told one reporter that he thought between 60,000 and 75,000 people had shown up.

I wasn’t in attendance and have no training whatsoever in estimating crowd sizes.  My strong guess is that the actual figure is closer to 75,000 than to 2 million.   But the bottom line is those who sympathize with a cause have every incentive to glom on to wild overestimates and those in opposition will glom on to the lowest estimate they can.  And we’ll never know the actual number.

UPDATE: Commenter Crust points out that Brendan says no such thing.  He’s right, even though I swore I read it in the post.  It turns out that it’s Eric Boehler‘s post — which is linked in Brendan’s and an excerpt of which forms the core of the post — that has the assertion I was attributing to Brendan:

According to estimates provided by the Washington, D.C., fire department, Malkin and friends were only off by 1,930,000 people. In other words, Malkin, citing fictitious press accounts, led the charge to falsely inflate the size of the crowd by 30 times. Malkin and company, desperate to dress up the tea party event as a mass movement, saw a relatively modest crowd of 70,000 GOP protesters and imagined it was 2 million strong

I had read Boehler’s post yesterday, never got around to writing about it, and conflated the two this morning. My apologies for the confusion.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. sam says:


    And we’ll never know the actual number.

    I suspect it’ll be somewhere between “Holy Shit!” and “So What?”

  2. Crust says:

    Jason, where did you get this quote?

    “the DC Fire Department gave the official total of 60-75,000—

    Because it’s not in Nyhan’s post. Even if you meant it as a paraphrase, I don’t see that in Nyhan’s piece. The closest is this:

    In the lede, the LAT noted crowd “estimates ranging from 60,000 to 2 million” before finally clarifying in the fourth paragraph that the actual turnout was under 100,000 people.

    No mention of an official estimate. No claim that the turnout was under 75,000 as opposed to 100,000.

  3. Crust says:

    James, my apologies for the strange slip of calling you Jason.

  4. There were 1.8M on the Mall for Inauguration. They closed all the highways. Crowds were at crush level. You couldn’t move. There’s no possible way for there to have been 2M on the Mall for this protest.

    Political. 🙂

  5. Rick says:

    Since by your own admission, you are not an expert or even a qualified amateur in crowd estimations, it would have been best if you did not feed the flames with your conjectures. By the way, I think you grossly underestimated the totals.

  6. DL says:

    It’s so silly. How many were at Lexington? Concord? Bunker Hill? How many Germans were marching in 1938 demanding that Hitler invade Poland? How many shot the Archduke and caused WWI?

    There are the seeds of revolutions planted by the left in this nation. Free people have been awakened as to the goals of the left.
    They simply won’t go quietly into the night. They know that if the left tries to take away their freedom, they will show up in sufficent numbers to stop them. The are not blind and see clearly that we are dangerously near the tipping point.

  7. Herb says:

    Crust – Now that’s weird…My “real” name is James and my brother is named Jason. And I’m just some third party that read your comment!! Weird, man…

    As to protest size, this is all I can say: Obsessing about the size of your, ahem, crowd hints at deep feelings of inadequacy, insecurity, and perhaps even performance anxiety.

    And the guy who says, “My [crowd] is bigger” is probably lying.

  8. FormerHostage says:

    Here’s the background on the 2 million guess.

    An honest mistake rather than a deliberate lie.

  9. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Pictures I saw showed the mall full all the way to the Washington Monument and a large group gathered on one side of the monument and a smaller group on the other. Pajama Media showed a picture of people passing by a spot on the avenue which, with turning lanes is 8 lanes wide and with sidewalks about 120 feet across. A flow of people walked or marched past that spot for 3 hours with no let up. I do not understand why a political SCIENTIST, who did not attend would advocate for a number that is so unrealistic, when a simple look at the pictures widely available should make an accurate estimate much easier. I have been to events at which 75,000 people attended. I think 75,000 people would not make much of a crowd on the 1.25 million square meters space at the National Mall. Pictures I saw looked like it was full up, dude.

  10. Triumph says:

    2 Million Protestor Myth

    I was there and I can tell you that 2 million is a myth–it is a serious UNDERestimate.

    There were at least 9 million patriots there. It was a serious pain finding a cab home.

  11. @zelsdorf: Keeping in mind that the Mall is always full of tourists, especially this time of year, and that images can easily be photoshopped (haven’t seen it, not accusing), I can say that the number of people there was an annoyance to all of us in DC… but it was neither 1.5M nor 2M. Their are logistical issues with those numbers.

  12. James Joyner says:

    Pictures I saw showed the mall full all the way to the Washington Monument

    Apparently, some old photos were being circulated, so don’t rely too much on them. Besides, all I said was “My strong guess is that the actual figure is closer to 75,000 than to 2 million.” Even a million — which I think is likely quite high — fits that range.

  13. John Burgess says:

    The first mention of ‘2 million’ I saw came from the mouth of a Democratic member of Congress saying what number she anticipated would be there. That was a day or two before the event.

    Zelsdorf: I, too, suspect you were looking at pictures taken on a different occasion. Check the sky. The march took place under low overcast. I doubt there are any actual aerial photos of the event.

  14. brainy435 says:

    Don’t get ruffled about James’ estimate. Read it again. He says he thinks it is CLOSER to 75,000 than 2 mil. 800,000 is closer to 75,000 than 2 mil so it doesn’t really mean a whole lot as an estimate.

    From what I read James doesn’t give an estimate so he can’t be blamed for giving a low estimate. I have no idea what the number was and am not interrested in guessing. I applaud the effort, though.

  15. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    The pictures I saw were live video taken at the event at the time. Yes Arron, they were tourists and they came to Washington, on their own dollar to tell the politicians to stop spending money they do not have and put a halt to socialized health care. Arron, what were you doing at the National Mall on Saturday? I looked at pictures taken at the inauguration of the first red President, and the mall was full. I looked at pictures of the tea party held at the mall on Saturday. The mall was full. If there were 1.8 million uncounted people at the inauguration, there were at least a million at the tea party. Democrats photo shop. Thieves always believe they are being stolen from. Cheaters always think they are being cheated and liars always believe they are being lied to. That is just how you roll.

  16. Oh you’re clearly not sure who you’re talking to if you’re going to start parsing what Democrats do and what Republicans do. That would be the wrong fight to pick. 😉

    Keep drinking that kool aid.

  17. devildog666 says:

    I was there and I can tell you that 2 million is a myth–it is a serious UNDERestimate.

    There were at least 9 million patriots there.

    I was there too! It had to be 12 million people.

    On a more serious note, from where I was in front of the Capitol there was no end to the crowd in any direction as far as the eye could see. I spoke to a few policemen; most of who wouldn’t comment on the size of the crowd, but one older cop said it was the largest crowd he had ever seen, much larger than the Obama inauguration.

    Whatever the real number it was a very large crowd.

  18. UlyssesUnbound says:


    How many were at Lexington?

    Initially 77 minutemen (mustered from a nearby tavern) and around 200 British regulars. By the end of the battle an unknown number of colonists (as many spectators were also in the mix) and about 700 British regulars.


    250 militia/minutemen

    Bunker Hills?

    1,200 colonial troops.

    How many shot the Archduke and cause WWI?


    But what does it matter? Fortunately in this country those who are truly patriotic fight their battles with the ballot, not the bullet.

    Also I find your example of Hitler’s march on Poland especially telling. You really want to use the example of a right-wing leader who, having failed to win an election, used his large minority to take control of power, which then resulted in one of the greatest tragedies the modern world has ever known? Good job!

  19. Crust says:

    James, let’s put aside your faux balance wild ass guess that Nyhan thinks there was an official estimate of at most 75,000.

    Why do you think that Pete Piringer’s estimate was a “wild ass guess”? (Personally, I don’t pretend to know either way. At your link, Piringer was quoted giving at least some minimal reasoning based on how far the crowd extended.)

  20. I wasn’t in attendance and have no training whatsoever in estimating crowd sizes.

    James, do you really believe one needs training to estimate crowd sizes? Perhaps we need a federal certification program to validate the credentials of crowd size estimators. I would have thought any intelligent person with access to reliable data and rudimentary math skills could come up with a reasonable, defensible estimate, but then I am not particularly enamored with the need for “expert” opinions on everything.

  21. (Addendum) I can only hope the “experts” at counting crowds are better than all the “experts” at counting lines of code I have dealt with over the years.

  22. James Joyner says:

    James, let’s put aside your faux balance wild ass guess that Nyhan thinks there was an official estimate of at most 75,000.

    Why do you think that Pete Piringer’s estimate was a “wild ass guess”?

    The first draft of his post was more explicit in that regard. But even as the post now stands, he’s clearly saying it’s well under 100,000.

    James, do you really believe one needs training to estimate crowd sizes?

    To estimate them? No. To do so accurately? Yes.

    Most of us have no idea how to differentiate between, say, 75k and 100k people in a crowd we’re part of. Even in a contained setting like a sports arena. Much less to do so from aerial photography or based on geographic points.

    As Aaron says, it was a sheer nightmare to get 2 millionish people into town for the inauguration. So, we can certainly bound the crowd as well below that. How much below? I dunno.

    And, as I’ve said from the outset, it really doesn’t matter much to me. A whole lotta people showed up.

  23. Crust says:


    [Per the LAT,] the actual turnout was under 100,000 people.

    To justify his parsing that

    [according to Nyhan,] “the DC Fire Department gave the official total of 60-75,000”

    Joyner writes that’s

    clearly saying it’s well under 100,000.

    Clear as mud if you ask me. If Nyhan thought there was an official estimate of at most 75,000, wouldn’t he have said “under 75,000”?

    That said, I didn’t see the earlier version of Nyhan’s post you apparently did (nor did Google’s cache).

  24. MichaelW says:

    For anyone interested, this picture shows what somewhere between 100,000 and 75,000 people look like from the media’s POV. (source).

    It’s likely not 2 million, but it’s definitely several times the so-called “official” estimate. (My own personal guess is somewhere between 550,000 and 650,000).

  25. TangoMan says:


    There were 1.8M on the Mall for Inauguration.

    Your estimate is off by about a million:

    An ASU journalism professor using satellite images calculated that 800,000 people attended President Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremony.

    For the TEA Party protest there was an actual people meter count (people walking past a fixed point) that went north of 1.5 million. Obviously, such a measure can’t control for duplicate counts. Their analysis settles around 850,000.

  26. An Interested Party says:

    So you’re actually claiming that there where more people present at this tea party thing than at the president’s inauguration? It would be just lovely if you could provide some real proof to prove that claim…

  27. TangoMan says:

    1.) A satellite photo provides a more accurate basis upon which to make a prediction than “crowd estimates.”

    2.) If the Democrats didn’t politicize the process of crowd estimation and in the aftermath of the Million Man March forbid the National Park Service from doing its best to provide estimates, then we wouldn’t have this problem.

    3.) A satellite based estimate puts the crowd at the Inauguration at 800,000. So here we have a ceiling. If we can find a satellite photo for 9/12 then we can do a direct comparison. Short of that though we need to rely on indirect measures. Counting people who walk past a fixed point gives you a hard number, rather than a soft estimate, but it’s also subject to double counting from people stopping and moving back through the crowd.

    4.) Because of uncertainty associated with count mechanisms, there are wide error bars attached to crowd estimates.

  28. Steve says:

    The next rally will leave no questions. After the hundreds of thousands get back to their homes all over the US and see how the media and other buffoons have misrepresented the message and the numbers the word will be spread and the next rally will leave no doubt that the sleeping GIANT has been awakened.

  29. An Interested Party says:

    re: TangoMan | September 16, 2009 | 07:17 pm

    Thank you for providing no real proof to back up your claim…

  30. TangoMan says:

    Thank you for providing no real proof to back up your claim…

    A people meter count is proof. It’s just a different sort of proof than one achieved via satellite photos. 1.5 million via people meter, with high uncertainty, versus 800,000 for a satellite based analysis, with low uncertainty.

  31. G.A.Phillips says:
  32. carpeicthus says:

    Here’s a decent litmus test: If you think the crowd size for the two events was about the same, and were in DC for both events, you are actually insane. Of course, out-of-towners tended to go to one or the other, so are merely seriously deluded.

    I mean, it was big. Be happy with that, don’t make yourself look like fools.

  33. JDM says:

    Actually, the National Park Service has a somewhat grounded basis for estimating crowd sizes. Years ago, I had to do some investigation of crowd size at one of these million-person events and the Park Service was the best source of a reasoned estimate.

    I can imagine even they wouldn’t volunteer their estimate anymore, but the ranger I spoke to pointed out that 1 million people would essentially double the population of the District and that much congestion would bring the city to a standstill.

  34. Oh, and Hitler was not a right-wing leader. Funny how National Socialist has come to mean right-wing.