When Barack Obama won the election in November, estimates of the inaugural crowd soared. Some suggested that as many as five million people might descend on Washington DC to participate in the festivities, dwarfing the record set by Lyndon Johnson’s 1965 inaugural crowd. In reality, the Obama inaugural may not have even broken that record:
More than a million giddy spectators convened on the national mall to watch Barack Obama take the oath of office today, but it is unclear if the crowd surpassed the record believed to have been set three and half decades ago at Lyndon B. Johnson’s 1965 inauguration.
Though early estimates Tuesday ranged as high as 2 million, satellite images of Obaam’s swearing-in suggested the actual size of the throng may have been closer to half that, according to Clark McPhail, a sociologist who has been analyzing crowds on the mall since the ’60s.
“It was sparser than I thought,” said McPhail, an emeritus sociologist from the University of Illinois. “There were lots of open spaces.”
The National Park Service — long relied on to calculate crowds for large Washington events — is expected to provide a firmer estimate later in the week, according to a spokesman.
That the NPS will provide an estimate is in itself interesting. As the Chicago Tribune reports, Congress ordered the NPS to stop providing crowd estimates for events on the Mall when a controversy broke out over the 1995 Million Man March. The NPS reported a number significantly less than a million, angering Louis Farrakhan and his supporters. Barack Obama participated in that same march, and it would be an interesting bookend to the moratorium on crowd estimates.
No one doubts that this inauguration attracted a large audience, but the early predictions were flat-out ridiculous. The entire state of Minnesota has a little over five million people in it. Washington DC and its environs could not possibly have absorbed that many people at the same time. These kinds of silly expectations started a mini-boom in house rentals, followed by a mini-crash when the demand never materialized.
We can all agree that Obama drew a historic crowd on a historic day. That should be good enough.