Stewart Rally Bigger Than Beck Rally?

215,000 people attended the "Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear" compared to 87,000 for "Restoring Honor." Even if you believe the numbers, they don't tell us much.

An estimated 215,000 people attended the Jon Stewart-Stephen Colbert “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” yesterday, compared to an estimated 87,000 for Glenn Beck’s August “Restoring Honor” rally, according to a service commissioned by CBS News.

An estimated 215,000 people attended a rally organized by Comedy Central talk show hosts Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert Saturday in Washington, according to a crowd estimate commissioned by CBS News.

The company based the attendance at the “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear” on aerial pictures it took over the rally, which took place on the Mall in Washington. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 10 percent.

CBS News also commissioned to do a crowd estimate of Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in August. That rally was estimated to have attracted 87,000 people. Amid criticism from conservatives that the estimate was low, CBS News detailed the methodology behind it here.

TBD reported that because of the high turnout many would-be rally attendees retreated to bars to watch the event.

Crowd size estimates are invariably controversial, so much so that Congress ordered the National Park Service to stop doing them after the Million Man March turned out to have, well, substantially less than a million men marching.   Naturally, supporters of the cause in question always think the crowds were much, much bigger than estimated and detractors always think the estimates are inflated.

Frankly, I don’t much care.  While I’m more sympathetic to Becks’ politics, I’m more drawn to Stewart’s style of politics.    And, while I didn’t attend either rally — crowds, traffic jams, and such  just aren’t my bag — I at least gave cursory thought to attending yesterday’s.

Regardless, the numbers don’t tell us anything useful about the popularity of political movements.    There were some rather important differences:

Motivation to Attend:

As Charli Carpenter notes, those who came yesterday “clearly didn’t come all for the same reason or all with the same politics.”  She aptly calls it “the big luau on the National Mall.”

Yes, those attending the Beck rally — and the Tea Party more generally — are a broad cross-section with only loose agreement on an issue cluster.  But they were drawn by a broad opposition to what the Obama administration and the Democratic majority in Congress are doing.  It was, more or less, a purely political rally.

The Stewart-Colbert rally, by contrast, was a lark.  Yes, the attendees were disproportionately Democrats and Progressives.  But there were doubtless a goodly number of people like myself, people who don’t really agree with Stewart’s politics but enjoy his show and prefer a more civil discourse about public policy.

Furthermore, while the Beck rally was all about political speeches — with the big draws being Beck and Sarah Palin — yesterday’s event was as much a free concert as a political rally.   Stewart and Colbert were the big draws, of course, but the lure of big name entertainers was there, too.

Geographical Diversity and Logistics:

People came from all over the country for both events.  But I guarantee you that a far, far greater chunk of yesterday’s crowd was from the New York-Washington DC corridor.   It’s a hell of a lot easier to get to DC from Manhattan than from Little Rock or Memphis or Bozeman.  That’s especially true when you’ve got Arianna Huffington and Oprah Winfrey providing free transportation.


The Beck rally was in late August, which makes coming to DC and standing for hours in a large throng of people particularly uninviting.   The average daytime high is 86 degrees and it’s frequently much hotter.  By contrast, it’s a pleasant 68 degrees in October.  And, of course, if you’re going to be driving a couple hours or hopping on a train or a HuffBus rather than flying from across the country, you can wait until you have a better idea about the weather.    It was a great day to be outside in DC yesterday.


The Beck rally was one of dozens of big Tea Party events that have taken place over a span of nearly two years.  It was the biggest, most heavily promoted, and most celebrity-laden.   But it wasn’t, as was the Stewart-Colbert rally, a singular event.   So, yesterday’s had the advantage of pent up demand.

More Useful Ways to Gauge Public Attitudes:

I’d like to believe that more Americans share Stewart’s sentiment that “we live now in hard times, not end times. And we can have animus and not be enemies” than in the overwrought rhetoric of the Glenn Becks of this world.   Indeed, I do believe that.

But the bottom line is that attendance at one rally in Washington versus another really doesn’t tell us much about the views of 310 million Americans.   Most of us just aren’t rally people and even those who would like to show up tend to have other obligations or are otherwise unable to disrupt their lives to attend.    We have a plethora of public opinion polling available to gauge public attitudes, many of which have been asking the same questions for years, if not decades.

And, of course, we have elections.   Next Tuesday will give us a better idea of what the national mood is than either yesterday or August 28th.

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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. rodney dill says:

    If you hold it, they will come.

  2. John Personna says:

    There is no rule that people who got the message couldn’t also enjoy the party. In fact your piece could inspire a Daily Show bit. Have the English guy say “Look, there. That one smiled, he doesn’t count”

  3. James Joyner says:

    I’m not saying they don’t count as attending the rally. I’m just saying a concert isn’t the same as a political rally.

  4. john personna says:

    Right. “He smiled!” and so “he had no political motive.”:

    A lot hinges on the motivations of people haven’t heard from, and certainly haven’t polled. Rather than “unjoined sets” I’d expect we’d see some real overlap. “Yes” someone might say “I agree that we should get out of anger politics” …. “and so I made this funny sign.”

  5. Billy says:

    Methinks thou dost protest too much…

  6. James Joyner says:

    I’m not protesting anything. I’m more sympathetic to Stewart than Beck and thought the parts of the rally that I saw — especially Stewart’s final speech — were superb.

    I’m just making analytical points about why we shouldn’t try to extrapolate much from attendance at very different kinds of events.

  7. john personna says:

    Yes, yes. We shouldn’t think that whatever sort of moderates Stewart called up literally have a 5:2 advantage over the sorts of activists Beck called up. Except in that sense the numbers for Stewart’s side look kind of low.

  8. george says:

    I can’t help but notice that most of the people there were white, does that mean that like the Tea Parties it was a racist event?

    Sorry, couldn’t resist …

  9. muffler says:

    Apparently the idea of sane politics is lost on some of the commentators as the same arguments are brought up here: Numbers, colors, motive etc. Where as the whole idea of the rally was the opposite. It was for people who are tired (to use J. Stewart’s line) of “using the magnifying glass of the press to light ants on fire” and to show that a majority of Americans want to work together to solve the real problems. Otherwise we are schoolyard children yelling “I know you are, but what am I?” all the time.

  10. anjin-san says:

    > It was, more or less, a purely political rally.

    Actually, it was a marketing event for Fox News. A very successful one.

  11. Maybe it means that more of Jon Stewart’s fans have free time on their hands.

  12. george says:

    “Apparently the idea of sane politics is lost on some of the commentators as the same arguments are brought up here: Numbers, colors, motive etc. ”

    Or maybe folks just have a sense of humour, or at least irony – you have to admit its at least somewhat amusing to take all the arguments used against the Tea Party, and note how many of them apply to this rally as well. And the reason isn’t that the politics are the same, but that the nature of rallies make them all similar … which makes a lot of the criticisms against the Tea Party superficial as well. There are real problems with the Tea Party, as with all the parties, but most of the criticism you hear are on superficial elements … numbers, colour, motive etc, rather than policies (and there’s the weakness of the Tea Party, they have no concrete policies, but no one seems to care about that, its numbers, colour etc).

  13. john personna says:

    sure george, go count the racist signs at the “sanity” rally. if you find any, you’d have something, that i would admit.

  14. george says:

    “sure george, go count the racist signs at the “sanity” rally. if you find any, you’d have something, that i would admit.”

    Count the signs in the anti-G20 demonstrations, or the number of cop cars burnt and windows smashed – is that typical of the left? Demonstrations aren’t representative of anything but the kind of people who like to go to demonstrations. The signs in the Tea Party demos, from what I’ve seen in pictures, are carried by maybe 1 in 20 attendants (and I suspect I’m being generous here, as probably less than 1 in 20 carry signs of any kind) … are you really generalising a whole movement based on signs carried by 5% of the people who show up to a demonstration, who are in any movement the most radical element of it?

  15. george says:

    Add: there is a lot to criticise about the Tea Party. It gives no concrete examples of what it would do, it has some outright contradictory ideas (against gov’t spending but don’t cut their medicare, want a small gov’t but a big military, as if the military wasn’t paid for by the gov’t). But to pay most attention to superficial things like the demonstrations is just silly.

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    it mattered in a symbolic sense. I’m sure CBS’ two estimates are probably about right although of course Jim you can if you wish go with Beck’s claimed 400,000 and Stewart’s 6 billion.

  17. Heltau says:

    Hey, brummagem joe, how can stewart have 6 billlion, does he not KNOW that 6 billion is almost all the humans in the know universe at this time? There would not be ANY room in the surrounding 100 mile radius to contain 6 billion people.
    Have you even seen the overhead pictures that were taken of Mr. Beck’s gathering? It was WAY BIGGER than the front lawn of the oral office that was stewart’s gathering.
    I just noticed the pictures to be able to tell the difference why can’t cbs be able to tell the difference? A little leaning forward problem cbs has?

  18. george says:

    “Have you even seen the overhead pictures that were taken of Mr. Beck’s gathering? It was WAY BIGGER than the front lawn of the oral office that was stewart’s gathering.”

    Yup, and this is important, because the number of people you can get out for a demonstration is all that really counts, in the end.

  19. Bruce says:

    I find it funny how conservatives get all bent out of shape whenever the estimate is smaller than what they think it should have been, but when a “liberal” rally’s size is estimated to be larger, the numbers don’t really matter and it’s “no indication of how the public feels”….

  20. george says:

    “I find it funny how conservatives get all bent out of shape whenever the estimate is smaller than what they think it should have been, but when a “liberal” rally’s size is estimated to be larger, the numbers don’t really matter and it’s “no indication of how the public feels”….”

    Both liberals and conservatives do this all the time. Look at the anti-war marches, and the huge fights about the numbers, and what they signified. The same arguments, now in reverse, are being done about the Tea Parties. And now this demonstration.

    My sense of it is that there’s a certain percentage of the population who just think going to demonstrations is fun, sort of like parades in the old days. Most supporters of most causes don’t have the time or interest – does even 1% of the population go to these events over the course of a year? On any side?

    Its free entertainment I guess, but I don’t think its significance goes much beyond that, other than giving the media something to talk about.

  21. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    87.000 by whos estimate. Most admit 500,000 at Beck’s rally. Compare the pictures if you have a long shot of the area. Call it what you want, if you want to fool yourself, but there were twice as many people at Beck’s gathering. But then you will see evidence of who was more effective on Tuesday.

  22. Wayne says:

    Smoke and mirrors. Ever wonder why so many of their crowd shots were so narrow?

  23. Wayne says:

    Probably the reason they didn’t want any other outside coverage and photography. So much for believing in openness and transparency.

  24. G.A.Phillips says:

    Stewart sucks!

  25. G.A.Phillips says:

    And if you think or repeat that 87 k number, lol, you are crazier then a liberal mainlining kool aid!

  26. mpw280 says:

    I bet I could get a better crowd on the mall promising to hand out free dope and beer. It wouldn’t mean shit, but I could get a better crowd than a couple of fools who make their money entertaining other idiots. Would it be a political rally, hell no, but it would have a crowd that someone would argue isn’t big enough or small enough. If you look to either of these guys for “news” you don’t deserve the right to vote, you haven’t earned it. Nothing like a celebration of stupidity to gather the masses, oh that and a concert. mpw

  27. qtip says:

    >yesterday’s event was as much a free concert as a political rally

    I attended the rally and had no idea it was going to have any musical guests – the rally website listed the speakers only as “Jon Stewart and special guests.” Certainly there was plenty of music but it wasn’t a motivating reason to attend for me.

  28. wr says:

    Don’t forget — after the Beck rally, all four hundred million marchers stayed behind and scrubbed and polished every surface until it gleamed like new.

    Can’t believe Zels and the others haven’t brought up the ludicrous “and the teabaggers placed all their trash in the proper receptacles” mantra that’s become the amen to any mention of a rightwing rally or riot.

  29. An Interested Party says:

    “If you look to either of these guys for ‘news’ you don’t deserve the right to vote, you haven’t earned it.”

    Tell that to all of the listerners of Rush Limbaugh or viewers of Glenn Beck…

  30. anjin-san says:

    Wonder if the black helicopters are still flying over Wayne’s house…

    > Nothing like a celebration of stupidity

    Yea, Stewart is the epitome of stupidity. Wonder why all the right wing talk show host like O’Rielly who are so good at bullying guests get very, very cautious when they are sitting down with him. How is Tucker Carlson’s career going?

  31. Tamara says:

    I attended the rally and I feel it is important to mention that myself and my party who attended did not anticipate any musical guests nor were we aware of anyone who would be present at the rally besides Stewart and Colbert. To discount the rally as stupid seems silly. Obviously that many people attending should not discredit the cause. If you take nothing away for it, take away what Stewart’s final speech discussed: how we put aside our differences everyday to work together. How can you disagree with working together? Do you punch every person you disagree with on the way to your job? Do you yell at co-workers with political stickers opposite to your view in the middle of business meetings? Probably not…
    We can all work together to make this country as strong as it once was.

  32. john personna says:

    George, the difference between the G20 demonstrations and anything else is that as far as I know, no one reasonable or anywhere near center tries to defend the G20 demonstrations.

    Globalization brings out all kinds of crazy groups. There are native rights protesters and vegan protesters at the same time. One group wants to eat the whales, one group wants to save the whales.

    So what the heck is this Tea Party defense, “G20 protesters are even crazier than we are?”

  33. Laura Pounders says:

    Three bus loads of sane people loaded up in Stillwater Oklahoma and 27 hours later unloaded in Washington D.C. , just to be present and to represent Oklahoma. It cost us real money, we paid our way. We wanted to make a statement, there ARE people even in one of the Reddest states, who disagree with the statements being made by the Tea party.

  34. john personna says:

    Thank you for those comments, attendees.

    I think they put attempts to “pre-position” your attendance in an interesting light.

  35. G.A.Phillips says:

    lol, I watch comedy central and Jon Stewart told me to go to a rally hahahahaha,,,,

    Damn and I thought my life sucked….

    but it looks like the fool, um, fools got more attandance then FAT ED THE RED….

  36. Wayne says:

    And what part are you disagreeing with? Are you saying the photos aren’t real? How about Comedy Central restricting filming?

    I see. You are just throwing insults and insults without backing it up.