I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen not just garden-variety liberals but major news outlets circulating these side-by-side shots on social media today, or ones of the grandstands empty at various points on the parade route. The charitable explanation is that the crowd-size comparison is a security blanket for them in a moment of fear. They’re depressed and terrified at their near-term electoral prospects so they’re reminding themselves that they still have — or had — the numbers to win. The less charitable explanation is that it’s pure spite at Trump’s expense, knowing that he’s probably going to claim that he had the biggest crowds of all time no matter what the evidence says. When your opponent is on a seemingly unstoppable roll, you’ll seize on anything to take him down a peg.
To give Obama his due, it’s no surprise that his 2008 crowd was easily the largest ever. He received the most votes of any presidential candidate in history that year, a record that still stands. He succeeded a president whose job approval had cratered, so he was greeted with jubilation by everyone not a part of the activist right. And of course he was the first black president, whose inauguration was historic beyond the usual reasons. It’ll be a long time before any president meets that benchmark of excitement. But Democrats have institutional reasons for drawing bigger crowds in Washington too. It’s a heavily Democratic city; it stands to reason that inaugurating a Democratic president will draw many more local onlookers than inaugurating someone from the other party would. Politifact has a list of crowd estimates for inaugurals since Reagan:
Barack Obama, 2013: 1 million
Barack Obama, 2009: 1.8 million (generally considered a record for people on the National Mall)
George W. Bush, 2005: 400,000
George W. Bush, 2001: 300,000
Bill Clinton, 1997: 250,000
Bill Clinton, 1993: 800,000
George H.W. Bush, 1989: 300,000
Ronald Reagan, 1985: 140,000 tickets sold, but record cold moved the swearing-in ceremony indoors
Ronald Reagan, 1981: 10,000, according to the New York Times. This was the first year the ceremony was performed on the west side of the Capitol.
Obama’s in a class by himself but note that Bill Clinton’s first inaugural after 12 years of Republican rule wasn’t far off the pace of O’s second inaugural even though the country’s population was much larger by 2012. The best numbers for a Republican are only half what Clinton drew. Democratic locals are going to turn out for Democrats; a city packed with federal workers is going to turn out for candidates who support bigger government payrolls; and D.C.’s many black residents were surely understandably eager to see the first black president sworn in. If the inauguration were held in, say, Salt Lake City, the partisan dynamics to all of this would be much different. Add to that the fact that it was rainy today in D.C. and there are bound to be lots of people who stayed home but would have turned out in better conditions. And even with all of that working against him, Trump did fine crowd-wise. One informal estimate put the size at 250,000, but another noted that the number of Metro trips made this morning was on par with the number made for Bush’s second inaugural, which would put Trump in line for the biggest crowd for a Republican president ever.
In other stupid media criticism today, Katy Tur of NBC couldn’t help noticing that Trump reserved his praise for Hillary Clinton for the post-inaugural luncheon, not the inauguration speech itself. Um, since when do presidents applaud the losing candidate in their inauguration addresses? That’s a speech about their vision for the country, not a shout-out to the eminences in the crowd.