Experts hired by CBS say that Glenn Beck's rally this weekend drew 87,000 people, plus or minus 9,000.
Glenn Beck, meanwhile, says the real total is somewhere between 300,000 and 600,000.
And not to be outdone, Michele Bachmann claims more than one million attended.
So who is right? Well, it's an inexact science, but let's take a look at numbers and make our best guess based on the available evidence.
For starters, let's look at three images of the rally:
CBS/AirPhotosLIVE.com image taken at rally's highpoint
CBS/AirPhotosLIVE.com image taken at rally's highpoint
A third view of the rally
From these photos we can see that virtually all of the crowd was situated along either side of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool. There was a light smattering of people around the World War II Memorial at on the Washington Monument side of the pool and another collection of people just north of the stage off the western end of the pool.
We know that the reflecting pool is 2,029 feet long and 167 feet wide. On the south side of the pool, people were generally gathered in an area no more than about 300 feet wide and on the north side of the pool they were gathered in an area about 150 feet wide. That means people were gathered in roughly 900,000 sq. ft of space along the edges of the pool. To take into account the area around the World War II Memorial and the area just north of the stage, we'll say that the Beck rally crowd occupied roughly one million square feet of area.
Now, using a figure of one million square feet for the rally space, let's go figure out what sort of crowd density Beck's estimate implied and what sort of crowd density CBS's estimate implied.
CBS put the range at between 78,000 and 96,000. That means on the low end, CBS is saying that each person occupied roughly 13 square feet of space on average. On the high end, they are saying more like 10 square feet. Beck, meanwhile, is saying on the low end that each person occupied about 3.3 square feet of space and on the high end that they occupied about 1.7 square feet of space.
- CBS low-end (78k): 13 sq. ft. per person
- CBS high-end (96k): 10 sq. ft. per person
- Beck low-end (300k): 3.3 sq. ft. per person
- Beck high-end (600k): 1.7 sq. ft. per person
What would those numbers mean in real life? Let's look at it a couple of different ways. First, let's assume each person was was in standing in the middle of a perfect square and that nobody else was inside of their square. What would the dimensions be of each person's square?
- CBS low-end (78k): 43 inches by 43 inches
- CBS high-end (96k): 38 inches by 38 inches
- Beck low-end (300k): 22 inches by 22 inches
- Beck high-end (600k): 16 inches by 16 inches
Now let's translate this to something most of us have experience with: airline seats. An airline seat is typically about 19 inches wide and there's about 31 or 32 inches between each row. Roughly, that's about 600 square inches or 4 square feet. So given that, how much area, in terms of airline seats, was the average person occupying according to these estimates?
- CBS low-end (78k): 3.1 airline seats of area per person
- CBS high-end (96k): 2.4 airline seats of area per person
- Beck low-end (300k): 0.8 airline seats of area per person
- Beck high-end (600k): 0.4 airline seats of area per person
Now go back and look at those pictures again, and look at how much green there is -- some areas (like the southwest corner of land next to the reflecting pool) are virtually barren. But for Glenn Beck's estimates to be right, the average person would need to be crammed into the area taken up by less than one airline seat! Indeed, his most agressive estimate assumes less than half of an airline seat per person!
To put it another way, to imagine Beck's high-end estimate, imagine a plane where two and half people were sitting in every passenger seat.
With that in mind, the CBS figures seem quite reasonable. Obviously, they can't be an exact figure, but they seem pretty close to accurate.
So, even though the rally fell short of Beck's claims, was it a big deal? I doubt it. There have been bigger rallies before and there will be bigger rallies again. And there was no unifying message to emerge from the event other than that some people really like Glenn Beck. It's a big country, after all.
The AP's Philip Elliot is convinced that the rally is of monumental importance and provides more evidence of Democratic doom. But that political analysis seems no more grounded in reality than Liz Sidoti's constant proclamations in 2008 that John McCain was the man and was causing all sorts of problems for Barack Obama. And nothing Elliot or Beck can say can change the fact that this weekend, Democratic activists knocked on the doors of 200,000 Americans to encourage them to vote. I'll take that over Beck's rally any day of the week.
Update: I've come up with a new way of measuring Beck's claim of attendance. Spoiler alert: I conclude that his upper-end estimate crowd density would have been the equivalent of having 20 people per queen-sized mattress if the entire rally area were covered with queen sized mattresses.
As a refresher, the total area available for the rally attendees was about one million sq ft, 90% of that on either side of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, though some off the eastern edge at the World War II Memorial and some northwest of the pool near the stage.
Now, imagine that over that entire area you placed queen size mattresses side by side so the entire area were covered with mattresses.
That would be 30,000 mattresses (each with an area of 33.3 sq ft).
According to CBS's 87k estimate, the average mattress would have had 3 people on it.
According to Beck's low-end estimate of 300k, the average mattress would have had 10 people on it.
And his high end estimate of 600k? 20 people on each mattress.
Talk about a wild orgy! (But please, count me out!)