The final word on crowd size at conservative protest

All sorts of false reports are flying around -- but I was there, and the attendance wasn't as high as claimed

By Alex Koppelman
Published September 14, 2009 10:15PM (EDT)

It's a little ridiculous that the Internet is still filled with arguments over the size of the crowd that attended the conservative protest at the Capitol on Saturday (and yes, I recognize that War Room has had a few posts on the issue). But I feel the need to weigh in on this one final time, because the right is still hopping mad, convinced the media has been playing down the attendance figures, and they're still dealing with a lot of bad information. Plus, I was there, and I saw the scope of the protest for myself. It was not nearly as large as a lot of people are saying.

As the Atlantic's Max Fisher correctly observed in one post on Monday, "It's an institutional hazard of covering protests that reporters seek out the center of the action and don't budge, giving them great anecdotes from individual attendees but little sense of the event's overall scope. Similarly, it's easy for bloggers to just read after-action reports or browse a few photos before drawing conclusions. But these are both risky strategies for covering big events, and it's easy to see why people are so confused about Saturday's attendance figures."

That explains things like Reason's Nick Gillespie posting a graph drawn up by a reader who showed the crowd reaching almost halfway down the National Mall from the Capitol. And it comes close to explaining the lack of common sense put into the eager acceptance of an aerial photo purportedly showing the Mall overflowing with protesters -- the photo, Politifact reports, was actually taken more than a decade ago.

I've covered my share of protests and rallies by this point, and I now have a routine for doing so. Before starting to interview protesters, I try to walk around and through the event to get a feel for the mood and size of the crowd. That's what I did on Saturday, too: First, I walked up as close as I could get to the podium, which was on the Capitol lawn, to try to look down at the National Mall and get a sense of how many people were there. It's hard to blame anyone who's basing his or her belief that the crowd was mind-bogglingly large on that perspective alone -- from there, due to a large group of tents set up on the Mall, it seemed as if the protest stretched for miles.

But then I went for a walk along the Mall. From the ground there, it was clear the rally petered out pretty quickly. Some on the right are claiming that more than 1 million people were at the event. In order for all those people to have space to stand, the Mall would have had to be packed from the Capitol down past 1st, 2nd and 3rd Streets and as far as 14th Street. In fact, as I noted in a post to Twitter that I wrote from the Mall, the crowd "all but end[ed] at 3rd Street." There were some protesters scattered through the block from 3rd to 4th, but not many, and after that it was green space all the way beyond 7th Street, at which point the tents -- which were for an unrelated event -- took over. (If you're not familiar with the geography of the Mall, there's a map here.)

Don't believe someone from Salon would accurately report what he saw on the Mall on Saturday? That's fine -- take a look at this photo, from a post on a conservative blog that's been used as evidence of a big crowd. Just past all the people in the foreground, you can see a bright blue blob -- that's a Freedom Works bus, which was parked on 3rd Street. (For perspective, look to the far right of the photo, where you can see the two buildings in the National Gallery of Art; the first stretches from 3rd to 4th.) Beyond that bus, up until the tents begin, all you can see is green grass.

I'm not going to get into the amateur science game some bloggers are playing, in which they imagine themselves magically capable of accurately calculating crowd numbers. I can't pretend to be an authority on that -- I just know that they're starting from a faulty assumption, and that the area the protest took up was not nearly as large as they believe it was.

Besides, Nate Silver makes a good point: "Mock the protesters at your peril: business as usual suddenly isn't so good for Democrats these days, and the sentiments of the 70,000 people who marched on Washington surely mirror those of millions more sitting at home."

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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