Ahead of Saturday’s March For Our Lives, officials associated with the event were bullish on their crowd expectations, anticipating that as many as a half a million demonstrators were poised to descend on the nation’s capital in Washington, D.C. Shortly after one o’clock on the day of the rally, as the bulk of the attendees had settled in to listen to the speakers and musical guests on the main stage, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) felt confident enough about the size of the crowd to take a salty swipe at President Donald Trump.
“I can tell you for sure, it’s larger than the Trump inauguration,” Van Hollen told The Hill, picking at the oldest sore spot of the Trump presidency — the crowd size at his inaugural celebration. Famously smaller than that of his predecessor, President Trump’s sensitivity to comparison spurred former White House press secretary Sean Spicer into his first controversy, hours into his tenure — a moment he now regrets.
A few hours after the March For Our Lives concluded, organizers laid down their marker with reporters, setting their figure at 800,000 attendees.
Sure feels likes that from our vantage point on the ground.
— Jacob Soboroff (@jacobsoboroff) March 24, 2018
Officials connected with today’s March For Your Lives in Wash DC tell NBC News they are estimating crowd size of 800 thousand. Per @dcdesker
— Doug Adams (@DougNBC) March 24, 2018
Should those numbers bear out, Van Hollen’s enthusiasm would be validated: a crowd that size would push past most estimations of the Trump inaugural, though it would still be considerably short of the number that were tallied at President Barack Obama’s first inaugural, or the first Women’s March.
— DigitalGlobe (@DigitalGlobe) March 24, 2018
Of course, crowd size can be a notoriously difficult thing to measure. During the controversy over the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration, Vox’s Sarah Frostenson solicited the expert opinion of Keith Still, a professor of crowd science at Manchester Metropolitan University in the United Kingdom. Still estimated that the crowd for the Trump Inauguration was somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000 people — a fairly wide variance.
Charles Seife, a professor of journalism at New York University who has written extensively on the difficulty of estimating crowd size, told Frostenson that the use of overhead satellite imagery is perhaps the best way to do the math — but that even this technique could not be considered an exact science.
In Washington D.C., the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) typically steps in to provide a barometer for the estimated size of demonstrations like the March For Our Lives, pegged to ridership statistics measured throughout the day. Based upon WMATA’s figures from Saturday afternoon, the March For Our Lives appeared to have brought in crowds comparable to Trump’s inaugural — but they’ll certainly fuel speculation as to whether the march’s organizers were correct in their 800,000 estimation.
Here are Saturday’s dispatches from WMATA’s twitter account.
— Metro (@wmata) March 24, 2018
— Metro (@wmata) March 24, 2018
And here’s the comparable tweet, served up on the day of Trump’s inauguration. (Please note: the 317K figure offered below was for January 21, 2013, not January 20 — an error that was corrected by WMATA in a tweet later that day.)
Metro Ridership: As of 11am, 193k trips taken so far today. (11am 1/20/13 = 317k, 11am 1/20/09 = 513k, 11am 1/20/05 = 197k) #wmata
— Metro (@wmata) January 20, 2017
For the full day, the Trump inauguration attracted 570,557 Metro riders.
For the sake of additional context, the Washington Post’s Luz Lazo notes that WMATA ridership spiked above one million riders on two days since the transit authority began keeping such statistics — the day of Obama’s inauguration (1,120,000 riders) and the first Women’s March (1,001,613). Of the top ten ridership days in the history of the system, those are the only occasions where either an inauguration or a demonstration make the list — though the January 19, 2009 “leadup to Obama inauguration” did earn seventh-place on the top ten list.
In all likelihood, the debate over whether or not today’s March For Our Lives outdrew the Trump Inaugural will rage for quite some time. It’s worth pointing out, however, that the comparison may, ultimately, be unfair to the marchers, because unlike an inauguration, today’s demonstrations were not a site-specific event, but rather took place in hundreds of locations across the nation.
— CNN Breaking News (@cnnbrk) March 24, 2018
President Trump, of course, was not in Washington, DC for today’s event. Not to worry, though: they brought a little bit of the march to him.
— Anne Geggis (@AnneBoca) March 24, 2018