The inauguration of a new president always brings excitement to at least some of the American public; enthusiasm which is demonstrated in part by citizens attending the inauguration itself.
Beyond the tickets available for sections close to the podium, it can be difficult to estimate the crowd in the area going all the way back to the Washington monument, and in the streets on either side.
It’s technically possible to take an extremely-high-resolution picture of a crowd and then count heads, but that’s generally not done given that it’s a huge task. Instead, estimates are made by visually gauging the crowd density over the area(s) that the crowd covers. Even then, estimates can vary widely – some estimates from inauguration day put the estimate at 250k, others as high as 600k. Until further analysis is done by crowd scientists, we likely won’t see an “official” count for a while.
However, the specific crowd count is not the metric the president has espoused; prior to the inauguration, Trump stated that people were coming “in record numbers”. In a statement to the press, White House press secretary Sean Spicer stated “That was the largest audience to witness an inauguration, period. Both in person and around the globe.” This was later re-iterated in a press conference, and by the President himself in an interview.
Determining whether this was the largest inauguration crowd ever is considerably easier to gauge than the crowd count, given that we can simply compare visually to past inaugurations.
Here are pictures from Obama’s 2009 inauguration, vs Trump’s:
Getty / 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee
Trump’s is on the bottom; this was taken at 11:15 EST, near the start of his speech, when the crowd was the largest. It is unknown when exactly the picture from the 2009 inauguration was taken, so it could be at peak capacity or it could not be. This comparison easily shows that there were less people at the 2017 inauguration vs 2009.
It’s important to note that angles play a part in estimating crowd size. Trump stated that the audience “went all the way back to the Washington Monument”, and if one were standing where he was it’s easy to think that:
Scott Olson via Getty
The large white spaces from the previous photos are visible in this one too, but only barely. This is why aerial views are integral to estimating a crowd. Trump stated that there were between 1 and 1.5 million people present; even with the inherent inaccuracy with crowd size reporting, that estimate is definitely far higher than the actual count. From a low angle at one end of a crowd, trying to estimate with any accuracy at all is essentially impossible once the crowd reaches a large size.
Apart from the photo comparison, D.C. Metro statistics also indicate far less activity in 2017 compared to 2009. While not all people attending the inauguration used the metro, the total usage helps illustrate how much activity there was. In 2009, the metro ridership by 11 a.m. was 513,000. In 2017, the ridership by 11 a.m. was 193,000.
While there are certainly some inaccurate estimates for this inauguration’s crowd size floating around out there, to state that it was the largest ever is clearly incorrect.
Spicer also mentioned that the viewership for this inauguration was the largest ever worldwide. For broadcast TV, this was definitely not the case; Nielsen numbers show that 30.6 million people watched the inauguration on TV, compared to 37.8 million in 2009 and the current record of 41.8 million in 1981.
Online viewer records for the 2009 inauguration are scarce, but in 2017 the official White House youtube channel stream had 1.2 million viewers at the time of this writing, while major news outlets had additional viewers (NBC’s had 9.5 million at the time of this writing, the largest I found). Of course, these video’s current counts indicate total watchers, not necessarily those who were watching at the time of the inauguration, nor viewers who watched multiple times.
It is possible that the total viewership for Trump’s inauguration was higher than Obama’s in 2009, but impossible to prove given the unreliability of internet viewer counts & unavailability of such counts from 2009. However, it can be stated with certainty that in-person attendance and TV viewership were not the largest ever for an inauguration.