I am but one of the thousands who attended the One Nation Working Together march to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. this past Saturday. It may be a spitball, but experience and wisdom tell me I saw at least 2000 people there. That makes it thousands, right? At the peak hour of this awesome day someone from the dias announced that satellite images showed our liberal crowd was bigger than the well publicized Restoring Honor rally held Glen Beck and other T-Bags last month. Saturday evening liberal blogs started using the number 175,000. But some independent observers differ with One Nation’s headcount magnanimity. The AP reported that One Nation’s crowd was “less dense” then Beck’s, but did not provide further clarification. Restoring Honor estimated their rally drew 500,000. CBS news
commissioned aerial photography of that August event and estimated 87,000. If you relied on the difference in those estimates in percentage, then One Nation’s rally would have had only 14,790 attendees. That can’t be right either. ABC said Restoring Honor had more than 100,000. NBC said tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands. None of these media organizations seems to have estimated or really even given much attention to the One Nation rally (Bias, but that’s for another article). This happens at every public rally I go to. Denver, Colorado has a huge gay pride parade every summer. I used to go to it when I lived there. Pride would always estimate their crowd was, say, 250,000 people from all across the West and the Denver police would tell the papers it was just two drunk fairies and a donkey. There are two reasons why unticketed public crowd estimates seem to vary so widely. The first is the scientific methodology of the counter. The second is the political affectation of the counter. The second reason often clouds the accuracy of the first.
While professional crowd estimators may use lasers, satellites, recorded video footage and surveillance balloons, advances in aerial digital photography and computer image-processing make it possible to get a fairly valid head count. The formula ends up being pretty basic arithmetic – square footage divided by occupation density. They take a picture from about 2000 feet over a crowd, break it into regions of similar density, measure the square footage of each region, apply a reasonable value for the density in each region, and then add the calculated number of people in each region back into a total estimate. There are three major variables: the area of the available space, the proportion of the space that’s occupied, and the crowd’s density. The similar density variable is the trickiest because the amount of square feet a single person occupies may be 2.5 feet, or 5 feet, or 10 feet as they get farther away from the center of whatever event. Although there have been advances in computer technology the basic mathematical formula has been utilized for decades.
Yet, even with this combination of complex models and simple math, the number of people attending rallies still seems to be elusive. This is because the technology hasn’t ever prevented political event organizers from relying upon what they say they saw from the stage. Yes, there is an easy, accurate way to count crowds but nobody wants to use it. In 1995 Louis Farrakhan and the organizers of the Million Man March said that their famous event in Washington had 1.5 million. The National Park Service estimated the number to be 400,000. Farrakhan threatened to sue the agency, and, to avoid future threats and controversy, Congress banned the Park Police from counting crowds at any future demonstrations. During protests against the war in Iraq, counts of the crowd size varied widely. Did political right-leaning police have a motivation for underestimating? Probably, but war protestors could have inflated their numbers to enhance their public significance. War supporters repeated the lower estimates while antiwar activists used higher numbers as proof that public sentiment was growing. It’s in the interest of political event organizers to promote the highest estimate. Their political opposition will always promote the lowest. Police and governing agencies want to show that they provided adequate resources and avoid controversy. And the media can slip in meaningless phrases like “tens, perhaps hundreds of thousands” without the cost or time of any factual research. It’s been no different this year for Restoring Honor or One Nation where the missions of the rallies is to bring in votes in the approaching mid-term elections. Crowd numbers are politics. When crowds gather to make political statements, it doesn’t matter how many people turn out. It’s whatever number the people who stayed home will buy.
Links to articles on crowd counting: