Stand up for the facts!

Our only agenda is to publish the truth so you can be an informed participant in democracy.
We need your help.

More Info

I would like to contribute

Louis Jacobson
By Louis Jacobson November 12, 2009

Beckel says protest against health care bill drew fewer people than Air and Space Museum

Counting people at Washington protests has always been a tricky business. Groups have always boasted of huge crowds, but police estimates were often much lower. That sparked such controversy that police don't do the counts anymore.

Without an official police count, organizers are free to claim big numbers, with only the news media to offer an independent assessment.

Such was the case for a protest against the Democratic health care bill on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol on Nov. 5, 2009. The weekday event featured dozens of Republican members of Congress and a boisterious crowd that carried, among other things, a banner showing a photograph of dead Holocaust victims with the label, "National Socialist Healthcare, Dachau, Germany, 1945."

As usual, there was debate about the size of the crowd. Rep. Michele Bachmann, R-Minn., a conservative firebrand who urged her supporters to attend, told Fox News' Sean Hannity on the day of the rally that 20,000 to 45,000 people attended. In the blogosphere, meanwhile, liberals dismissed the idea that more than a few thousand people showed up.

A few days after the rally, Bob Beckel, a Democratic consultant and Fox News contributor, said Bachmann's estimate was inflated. "Well, I was down at that thing," Beckel said on Hannity's Nov. 9 show. "You said there were 20,000 people there. There were more people at the Air and Space Museum that day than were [at the rally]."

We wondered if Beckel was right, so we checked with the National Air and Space Museum. A spokeswoman told us there were 9,771 visitors that day.

Estimating the size of the rally is more difficult. We called the Capitol Police, which has jurisdiction over the area where the rally was held, and a spokeswoman said that the department did not make a crowd estimate.

So we are left with reports in the news media. A news story in the Washington Post put the number at "an estimated 10,000," while Dana Milbank, a columnist with the Post , said 5,000. Politico , a daily publication that that covers politics, said there were "at least 10,000" attendees. Most other newspaper accounts, including stories in the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, pegged attendance at "thousands" of people.

We asked two reporters who covered the event how they came up with their number. Politico 's Jonathan Allen explained his methodology for us in considerable detail.

"I used a pretty simple method for my estimate," Allen told PolitiFact. "The biggest portion of the crowd on the lawn was penned into a stone-walled area that looks a bit like the top part of a trapezoid. I counted people, roughly ticking off by tens, across the narrow top and got to 180. Then I went down one leg of the wall to count how deep the full line of people went, getting to between 50 and 60. I multiplied 180 by 55, knowing that because I was dealing with an angle greater than 90 degrees at the junction of the walls that my number would actually undercount the people in the space. The product of the two numbers is 9,900. I added because of the shape of the area and because there was another section of the crowd numbering in the low hundreds."

He concluded that "it was at least – but not too much more than – 10,000," adding, "I had another reporter with me, who agreed with the methodology. For anyone watching on television, it should be remembered that it’s a huge lawn that takes tens of thousands of people to fill. If it looked empty, that’s because it’s a big space. I’ve been going to sporting events and political rallies for more than 30 years, and I have a pretty good sense of crowd size. That said, if someone can produce an aerial shot and count the people and prove me wrong, I’m happy to correct the error."

We also talked to Noam Levey, who covered the event for the Los Angeles Times . "We based our estimate on a combination of observation and interviews," Levey said. "Particularly helpful was Clark McPhail, an emeritus professor at the University of Illinois, who has been doing crowd estimates on the Mall for years by calculating densities in set areas of the Mall. At our request, Clark looked at photos of the event to come up with his estimate that about 5,000 people were there."

We followed up with McPhail. He said that the only elevated photograph of the rally that he was able to secure led him to estimate a crowd of 5,000, but McPhail added that the photograph he used was imperfect. It was not taken from as high an angle as he would have liked, and it was unclear whether it had been taken at the moment of maximum attendance.

When we explained Allen's methodology to McPhail, he praised it as being statistically sound. "It's absolutely a credible way of counting," McPhail said. "In fact, I train observers to do it that way."

We find no support for the much larger estimates from Bachmann, who did not respond to our e-mails. And as a leader of the rally, she would benefit from a larger estimate.

So, in the absence of an official count, we'll take McPhail's lead and give Allen's methodology some credence. That means the number of people attending the rally and visiting the Air and Space Museum was about the same. If he's right, it's by just a small margin. If he's wrong, it's also by a small margin. So we find Beckel's claim Half True.

Featured Fact-check

Our Sources

Bob Beckel, comments on Sean Hannity's show on Fox News, Nov. 9, 2009, accessed via Lexis-Nexis

Michele Bachmann, comments on Sean Hannity's show on Fox News, Nov. 9, 2009, accessed via Lexis-Nexis

Dana Milbank, " No one said freedom was pretty ," Washington Post , Nov. 6, 2009

Philip Rucker, " Activists bring 'tea party' to Capitol Hill; House Democrats' health bill denounced as 'Pelosi-Care ,'" Washington Post , Nov. 6, 2009

Jonathan Allen and Meredith Shiner, " Tea partiers descend on Capitol Hill ," Politico , Nov. 5, 2009

Janet Hook and Noam Levey, "Seniors, doctors give key boost to health bill; The din grows from the left and right as a House vote nears," Los Angeles Times , Nov. 6, 2009, accessed via Lexis-Nexis

Associated Press, " Chanting 'Kill the bill,' thousands rally at Capitol to protest health care overhaul bill ," Nov. 5, 2009

E-mail interview with Jonathan Allen, reporter with Politico , Nov. 12, 2009

E-mail interview with Noam Levey, reporter with the Los Angeles Times , Nov. 12, 2009

Interview with Clark McPhail, crowd expert and emeritus professor at the University of Illinois, Nov. 12, 2009

Interviews with Isabel Lara, spokeswoman for the National Air and Space Museum, Nov. 11-12, 2009

Interview with Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, spokeswoman for the U.S. Capitol Police, Nov. 11, 2009

Browse the Truth-O-Meter

More by Louis Jacobson

Beckel says protest against health care bill drew fewer people than Air and Space Museum

Support independent fact-checking.
Become a member!

In a world of wild talk and fake news, help us stand up for the facts.

Sign me up