Media and social media liberals have been breathless the past two days over the contrast between the relatively small crowds for President Trump’s inauguration and (1) the large crowds at President Obama’s 2009 inauguration and (2) the large crowds gathering in DC and a number of other big, liberal cities across the country for today’s “Women’s March,” which purports to be a popular movement against Trump but which has pointedly excluded pro-life women. Three points to bear in mind.
One, it was not long ago at all – as recently as the afternoon of Election Day – when liberals were broadly united in scorning crowd sizes as a measure of popularity. As you may recall, a number of pundits had pointed to the crowds drawn by Mitt Romney in 2012 and Sarah Palin in 2008 as a sign of Republican enthusiasm, and they decisively lost the argument to Nate Silver and other data analysts who derided the idea that crowd sizes trumped polls. In 2016, Trump drew yuge crowds all across the country, and he and his supporters bragged about them incessantly. While polls were still a better way of looking at the world than crowd sizes, those crowds did speak to how he activated a particularly devoted segment of the electorate, and certainly everyone on the Democratic side was united all the way through the election in snarking at the significance of Trump’s crowds. It’s hard to credit the sincerity of those same people now getting excited about crowd sizes.
Two, there are obvious reasons of geography, demographics, and history why Obama in 2009 in particular drew large crowds for his inauguration, and Trump did not. Obama was enormously popular in DC and its surrounding areas, winning well over 90% of the vote in the District and carrying Maryland and Northern Virginia by wide margins; Trump did especially badly in those areas in the primaries and the general election. It’s always easier to get people to show up to an event within an hour’s drive than to travel in from Michigan or Iowa or Western Pennsylvania. That’s doubly true of poor and working-class people who can’t easily take multiple days off of work and pay for hotel rooms and travel (Obama’s inauguration was on a Tuesday in 2009, a Sunday in 2013; Trump’s was on a Friday). And of course, today’s marches are hard to compare, since they’re distributed across the country and held on a Saturday. Also, it’s hardly surprising that Obama drew big crowds in 2009, given that a lot of people who knew or cared little about his politics were inspired by the simple fact of inaugurating the first African-American president. It was already true that Hillary won tremendous support in the big cities of America, while Trump did unusually poorly there and unusually well in rural areas, so you would expect that marches and demonstrations held in big, media-friendly cities would paint an asymmetrical portrait of a nation of Hillary backers.
Three, the liberal and media enthusiasm for touting large crowds as a sign of popular sentiment is roughly 100% certain to evaporate completely next Friday when the March for Life comes to Washington to commemorate the anniversary of Roe v. Wade and pray and protest for its reversal and the extension of legal protection to all human life in the United States. Held annually for four decades, the March for Life routinely draws massive crowds in DC, as well as local events across the nation, and just as routinely gets a tiny fraction of the media coverage that is being lavished on today’s marches.
Crowd sizes for the March for Life are impossible to ascertain with certainty, in part because of the enormity of the crowds, and in part because the Park Service stopped doing official crowd-size estimates following a threatened lawsuit from Louis Farrakhan twenty years ago. The Wikipedia page for the March, collecting a number of news reports, offers this:
Between 2003 and 2009, the march had an attendance of around 250,000, but this number has since increased. The 2011 and 2012 marches drew an estimated 400,000 each, the 2013 march drew an estimated 650,000.
Now, organizers of events on all sides of the political spectrum tend to overstate crowd sizes, today’s and the March for Life included; that’s precisely why Farrakhan objected when the Park Service counted a lot less than a million men for his Million Man March. But even discounting some of that 650,000 high-end figure, virtually any reliable source on the March for Life acknowledges the sprawling size of the annual turnout, year in and year out, including busloads arriving from Catholic parishes and colleges across the country. But the media annually yawns and treats this simply as a ho-hum part of the annual DC landscape, not as a sign of broad popular resistance, after all these years, to the brutality of abortion, and tends to bury the story far from the front page. I can predict with great confidence that they will do so again this year.
Is Trump an unusually unpopular new president? Yes, absolutely he is, by any number of polling measurements; even a great many of his hold-my-nose-and-stop-Hillary voters remain skeptical of the man. Is he likely to be a galvanizing force that allows the Democrats to regroup and reorganize? Probably. And the ability to draw crowds to today’s marches could be the start of that process, as it was for the Tea Party in 2009. It could also be a dead end of preaching to the converted and dividing into increasingly narrow ideological factions, as Occupy Wall Street was. It won’t achieve much of anything if the people marching today are almost all people who already voted for Hillary. That all remains to be seen. Democrats may end up learning nothing at all from 2016, and needing to learn nothing, if Trump turns out to be a disaster in office. But the ability to draw crowds consisting mainly of people in big cities who were already reliable Democratic voters doesn’t necessarily tell us very much we didn’t already know. And don’t expect the people telling you otherwise to get excited about the crowds at the March for Life.