We’re six weeks into Donald Trump’s presidency and the silly topic of inauguration crowd-size is still in vogue. The media has accurately and incessantly debunked declarations by the Trump administration that 2017 was “the largest audience to witness an inauguration.” However, the same media has yet to offer an apples-to-apples comparison of the 2009 and 2017 inauguration crowds. Context has been severely lacking.
Despite the rise of Airbnb, Trump’s inauguration booked 3,689 more rooms than Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration (1.8 million attendees). More shockingly, the hotel occupancy rate for George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration (300,000 attendees) outpaced Obama’s 2013 inauguration (1 million attendees) 89 to 81 percent. The data strongly suggests a large portion of inauguration attendees live locally.
Democrats outnumber Republicans 12-to-1 in Washington DC, where Trump won just 4 percent of the vote. Eighty percent of DC tourism comes from 14 states, several in the northeast; however, just two of those states are solidly Republican. While northeastern cities generally have easy travel-access to DC, Trump won the election primarily from rural support, a voting class at a comparative traveling-disadvantage both geographically and economically. Moreover, Inauguration Day, a federal holiday in metropolitan DC, fell on a Tuesday in 2009. Federally employed residents, predominantly Democrats, received a four-day weekend, and had the option of attending the inauguration of the first African-American President the day after Martin Luther King Day. Trump’s inauguration occurred the Friday after Martin Luther King Day.
Although second-term inaugurations are typically less attended than first-term, a notable exception is Bush, whose 2005 attendance increased 33 percent despite an approval rating drop. The primary reason is rainy weather. Heavy rains were forecast days in advance of, and the morning of, the Trump inauguration. The National Mall appeared 20 percent denser between 11:15AM and 12:01AM, suggesting a surge of late-arriving attendees purposely waited out the rain. An umbrella ban, partially and confusingly reversed late, may have suppressed turnout as well. Studies show every inch of rain decreases voter turnout by one percent, twice as much as snow. Though the 2009 inauguration was 28 degrees, cold weather has no effect on voter turnout.
The DC Metro tweeted that 2017 morning ridership was 37.6 percent of 2009. However, Metro ridership has declined annually since 2009, including 9 percent in 2016 alone, despite DC tourism increasing 23 percent over the same period. Unlike 2009, UberX and Lyft, the DC Circular, and the DC Streetcar were transportation options in 2017. Even limousine businesses reported increased sales. Additionally, studies conclude rain always decreases bus and train ridership, while cold always increases bus ridership and often increases train ridership.
Weeks before the Trump inauguration, DC braced itself for tens of thousands of protesters. Though most protesters were expected to demonstrate peacefully, a few threatened chaos. Security checkpoint were stalled or shut down by both peaceful protesters and rioters. Some were stuck in line for over five hours, not even allowed to leave their line. Others able to escape stalled lines simply gave up and went home. Nearby DC Circular stops were not served due to smashed bus shelters. Altogether, 230 protesters were arrested: None were arrested in 2009.
Fact-checkers and media reported attendance of 250,000 and 600,000 for Trump’s inauguration. The 250,000 estimate originated via tweet from Dan Gross, a Democrat, who spent Inauguration Day morning trolling the incoming administration, but never disclosing how he calculated the estimate a mere three minutes after Trump took the Oath of Office. Gross offers some humorous retweets and snark, but no scientific explanation. Gross did retweet the Metro ridership statistics, which themselves indicate 676,800 attendees (37.6 percent of 1,800,000). Considering 250,000 tickets were issued around the Capitol Building alone, and aerial photos depict larger crowds than either Bush inauguration, reporting the 250,000 estimate seems unjustifiable.
The 600,000 estimate is inferred from Dr. Keith Still, who analyzed aerial photos of the National Mall 45 minutes before the swearing-in ceremonies of 2009 and 2017. This questionable methodology seems akin to counting Super Bowl fans seated during the pregame show instead of at kickoff. Furthermore, The New York Times, a leftist newspaper that describes Still as someone it “hired” to perform the study, brazenly distorts his analysis to 160,000 attendees. Regardless, if the reader accepts Still’s conclusion, 600,000 attendees is hundreds of thousands more than Bush, and the most for a Republican since at least Dwight Eisenhower and possibly ever.
While the 2009 inauguration was unquestionably larger than 2017, the media should have added substantive context to their reporting. Anything less does a disservice to the reader, and runs the risk of feeding a “fake news” narrative.
Evan Boudreau is a freelance writer, musician, consultant, stay-at-home Dad, and independent thinker who craves data-driven analysis and unbiased political commentary. Evan detests social media, but can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.