The Politics of Crowd Estimates
Glenn Beck's "Restoring Honor" rally raises, yet again, the tiresome fight over crowd estimates and their political significance.
It is inevitable as the sun and the rain: every time someone has an event on the National Mall we get involved in debate over numbers wherein the press will provide estimates and the supporters of the event will claim that there is bias in the reporting. Within my own personal memory of such contest, it dates back to “Million Man March” held in 1995.
At any rate, cue CBS: Glenn Beck Rally Attracts Estimated 87,000.
And, then, cue Jim Hoft: RESTORING HONOR RALLY – 500,000 Patriots Gather to Honor America.
AirPhotosLive.com gave its estimate a margin of error of 9,000, meaning between 78,000 and 96,000 people attended the rally. The photos used to make the estimate were taken at noon Saturday, which is when the company estimated was the rally’s high point.
Also, the Washington Examiner had the following: Crowd estimates, early reports from Beck’s ‘restoring honor’ rally (with updates)
Michelle Malkin reports that as early as 7:30 AM there were already 100,000 peope gathered at the site.
Reporters on the ground, however, state that the claim of 500,000 attendees is grossly underestimated. A more accurate assessment of the crowd may well turn out to be between 500,000 and 1 million
Look, supporters always think their events are bigger than they are. More importantly, it is impossible to estimate a crowd size by being in the crowd itself (which is the source of the WE estimates above. Further, as is almost always the case at these things, the number that ends up getting traction is a number announced at the event itself by the main protagonist of the day. In this case, apparently Beck himself announced the 500k figure to the crowd.
Look, if there were 500,000 people there (or more) great. I have no interest in supporting a particular number.
All I know is the following:
1) We go through this every time there is a big event that includes the gathering of people, whether it be in DC or elsewhere.
2) There are always claims made by the organizers of the events that never seem to have an empirical basis (and this is a bipartisan, if not multipartisan, observation).
3) The organizers of a given event always hang too much significance on the number itself, as if the impact of the event in question is measured only in terms of a given, dramatic attendance number. The bottom line is that an event like this is less likely to have a dramatic national impact than the organizers would like it to have. Conversely, since these events become national, if not international news events, the potential for an impact is actually less connected to the attendees than it is to the way the message of the event resonates via TV and other media.
I would note that of the various such events that have happened on the Mall over the years, the only one to date that had a long lasting effect in historical terms, was the one that took place 47 years ago yesterday—and it was more a manifestation of a broader societal change than it was the catalyst of that change.
The bottom line is that we will never know the actual number. The only reliable way to get that is to have controlled access and tickets, which can’t be done for an event like this.
My tendency is to trust the media estimates, given that they at least try to engage in a method for crowd estimates, unlike event participants who basically are reacting to a combination of hopefulness and the experience of being in the middle of a very large crowd.
The NYT probably has the best approach to the whole thing: “An enormous and impassioned crowd rallied at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday.” Both adjectives strike me as accurate. The paper didn’t provide its own estimates, but noted the unsourced 500k number and cites a 300k number from NBC. Best as I can figure the 300k number allegedly comes from the National Park Service, but they stopped providing estimates in 1997 after the aforementioned Million Man March. The course for the NBC story appears be a Tweet reported here. As such, let’s just stick with “enormous and impassioned crowd.”
Ultimately, the size of the crowd isn’t the issue. The issue is whether the event has much of a political impact beyond yesterday. And that will also be difficult to measure, given vague goals like “restoring honor” and calls for “religious rebirth.”*
*Which is made quite interesting given that Beck is Mormon, and therefore subscribes to a religious perspective that most Evangelical Protestants consider a cult (although mainstream acceptance has grown in recent decades). For more on that topic, see here and here).
Photo source: click.