A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

How Many Protesters?


We’ve often observed an odd quirk in the behavior of political partisans; they tend to exaggerate even when they could make their point without doing so.

The most recent example is the weekend protest in Washington, D.C., at which a very large number of people turned out to criticize the Obama administration. Fox News reported that "tens of thousands" turned out, as did all major news outlets. The Washington, D.C., Fire Department put the number between 60,000 and 70,000, or over 75,000, depending on the news organization reporting. The New York Times said the number was "well into the tens of thousands" and that "the magnitude of the rally took the authorities by surprise, with throngs of people streaming from the White House to Capitol Hill for more than three hours."

That’s not a small group.

And yet, organizers claimed that 1.5 million attended. And they quoted ABC News as saying the same thing, which ABC News did not. The 1.5 million figure (and even larger ones) have since been picked up and repeated by conservative bloggers, usually attributing the number to ABC News.

If the 1.5 million figure is accurate, it would rival the 1.8 million who were officially estimated to have attended Barack Obama’s inauguration in January, which stands as the largest crowd ever seen in Washington.

No precise count is possible for such gatherings; people don’t pass through turnstiles and nobody takes attendance. Even using aerial reconnaissance and sophisticated analysis of crowd density has its pitfalls, and that wasn’t done for the Sept. 12 protest.

But for the record, and until better evidence comes along, here’s what has been reported about the size of the Sept. 12 event:

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported:

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: [Protest organizer Debbie] Dooley estimated the size of the crowd, which stretched for blocks and spilled over to the National Mall, at 1.5 million, but that was unlikely based on the size of crowds at previous events in the capital. The Associated Press estimated the crowd’s size in the tens of thousands.

And indeed, The Associated Press lead its story with this:

AP: Tens of thousands of protesters fed up with government spending marched to the U.S. Capitol on Saturday …

Fox News agreed, reporting:

Fox News: The tens of thousands of protesters marched to the U.S. Capitol chanting various slogans and waving posters …

The Wall Street Journal reported:

WSJ: A spokesman for D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services estimated the crowd at "in excess of 75,000" people. Local and federal law enforcement authorities don’t provide crowd estimates.

ABC News reported:

ABC News: [A]pproximately 60,000 to 70,000 people flooded Pennsylvania Ave, according to the Washington DC Fire Department.

Crowd Inflation

Nevertheless, the event’s organizers claimed that ABC’s estimate was 1.5 million, and many conservative bloggers picked this up and repeated it, without checking. But that is not true. ABC never said that, and later reported:

ABC News: Matt Kibbe, president of FreedomWorks, the group that organized the event, said on stage at the rally Saturday that ABC News was reporting that 1 million to 1.5 million people were in attendance.

At no time did ABC News, or its affiliates, report a number anywhere near as large. ABCNews.com reported an approximate figure of 60,000 to 70,000 protesters, attributed to the Washington, D.C., fire department. In its reports, ABC News Radio described the crowd as "tens of thousands."

Kibbe later apologized for attributing the number to ABC News, writing on his blog: "With a dead IPhone, I had been shown tweets from a number of different folks behind the stage citing the ABC estimate. They didn’t say it. I regret misrepresenting the network, as their coverage that day was fair and honest." But he maintained that crowd estimates in the "tens of thousands" amounted to "misreporting the significance of the event."

Organizers of such events, regardless of their partisan leanings, commonly claim higher numbers than public officials or news reporters estimate. When the National Park Service produced an official estimate that 460,000 had turned out for the so-called "Million Man March" in 1995, organizers threatened to file a lawsuit. After that, Congress prohibited the Park Service from making official estimates.