Glenn Beck's Crowd Size: Who Knows?

The answer: not me.

The size of the crowd at Glenn Beck's rally in Washington, DC this Saturday became a political football before the event even began in full. Soon after he took the stage, Beck looked out over the massive crowd assembled on the Mall and proclaimed that, if you listen to the media, "there are over a thousand people here!" Toward the end of the rally, he suggested totals of 300,000 or 500,000, insinuating that the media would low-ball the total. Several people I talked to were certain the rally had drawn over a million.

The crowd, in truth, was huge. In front of the Lincoln Memorial, people packed in along the Reflecting pool and filled up an adjacent field, where an extra jumbotron was set up. Shaded by trees, the crowd filled up surrounding park areas. It stretched, in respectable density, past the World War II memorial, and what looked to be a several thousand occupied the hill in front of the Washington Memorial, roughly three quarters of a mile away.

Beck rally crowd - Flickr meeshypants.jpg
Michael Calderone notes at Yahoo! News blog The Upshot that CBS actually commissioned its estimate of 87,000 from a company that specializes in crowd estimates, while observing that the total was probably greater:

Even though Beck is still tabulating a crowd estimate, it can be expected to be significantly higher than the number CBS News reported over the weekend: 87,000.

CBS commissioned an estimate from AirPhotosLive, a company that provides crowd sizes based on aerial photos. CBS noted that there's a margin of error of plus or minus 9,000. So, by this estimate, there were as few as 78,000 attendees or as many as 96,000.

Unlike CBS, most news organizations balked at getting that specific (or hiring professionals to make a head count). Some media outlets played it safe with "tens of thousands," a count that's indisputable. Others went with "hundreds of thousands." Perhaps the only thing the media agreed on -- including this reporter on hand -- is that a very large number of people assembled to hear Beck speak.

The media, in years past, would typically cite the National Parks Service estimate, along with the organizer's estimates (which tend to be higher).  But the Parks Service stopped providing crowd estimates in 1997 after organizers of the 1995 Million Man March assailed the agency for allegedly undercounting the turnout for that event. 

Calderone also explains how a 300,000 figure spread throughout news reports. The National Parks Service doesn't do crowd estimates, so there is no official-sounding body that gives a government-sanctioned number of record. (If they did, accusations of political conspiracy would undoubtedly ensue.)

In writing about the rally on Saturday, I went with a vague "hundreds of thousands," based on my general impression that there were lots and lots of people there. The crowd looked to me to be at least one and a half times the size of a packed NFL stadium, which would put it over 100,000. (Having been to a NASCAR event in person would have helped me out here.)

To get an idea of the size of the crowd, here's a Google Map of the area between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument:

Mall aerial - Google Maps.jpg
I can say that people had set up, rather densely, with lawn chairs on the near side of Constitution Gardens and that the crowd was packed in between there and the Reflecting Pool. More people filled up an adjacent field on the South side of the Reflecting Pool that stretches up toward the Korean War Veterans Memorial. After 17th St., the crowd thinned out, with what looked like a few thousand perched on the hill that leads up to the Washington Monument.

Image credit: Flickr user meeshypants. Photo was modified slightly by rotating.