How Big Was Trump's Waco Crowd? Not Even 2000 Showed Up

Trump speaking at rally.
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Donald Trump’s power to draw crowds of adoring political fans is shriveling like an ice cube in a hot frying pan, not that you would know that from following the news in our leading newspapers about his fourth presidential campaign.

Trump formally launched his 2024 bid for the White House on the tarmac at the Waco airport in Texas.

With a single exception, the politics reporters covering his campaign launch reiterated one of Trump’s baseless claims. This lie helps Trump fabricate the impression that his MAGA movement is growing.

In radio and television interviews, hosts often ask me about the supposedly vast Trump crowds and how this indicates he may regain the White House in 2024. Lousy reporting on the size of Trump crowds, and a weakening sense of skepticism among many working politics journalists and some broadcast hosts, helps perpetuate this Trumpian illusion.

Remember when Trump had his press secretary, Sean Spicer, proclaim that his inaugural drew the biggest crowd ever despite photographic and other evidence that his audience was much smaller? His audience was average despite the splendid weather. Trump drew a much smaller audience than Barack Obama did in 2009 in bitterly cold weather. Even Fox News, which had yet to go to all-out lying 24/7, fact-checked Trump and declared his claim false.

Not Counting Cars

Sadly, my former employer, The New York Times, failed to do the basic and easy reporting to determine how many attended the Waco rally. That’s surprising since one of the Times reports makes it clear that reporters were on the scene hours before Trump spoke, giving them abundant time to count how many cars and pickups arrived and then to estimate the average number of people per vehicle.

Without attribution, The Times described as fact a Waco “crowd of thousands.”

A Times photo caption repeated this: “Thousands of supporters attended Mr. Trump’s rally on Saturday in Waco, Texas.”

The truth: not even 2,000 people attended.

Two thousand people would be the tenuous and minimal threshold for writing that “thousands” turned out in Waco.

One appropriately skeptical reporter was covering the Waco rally: John Mone of Scripps News.

Mone wrote that “hundreds” turned out while noting that Waco police expected about 10,000. Mone’s piece is a model of how to do it. Politics editors and producers would be wise to distribute his piece to their staffs.

How We Estimated Crowd Size

I didn’t go to Waco, so how can I write about the size of the crowd?

With help from two others with investigative reporting experience, we gathered and scrutinized Waco rally still and moving images. We obtained images from various perspectives to make sure we counted outliers.

We then enlarged these images, divided them with gridlines, and painstakingly checked off each human we could see.

To ensure that we gave the highest possible number, we counted as a human being many image fragments that could be just an article of clothing. Understating is a virtue that I teach investigative reporters around the world. But, of course, it’s always best for any subsequent official inquiries to show that situations were even worse than you reported.

The Count

Applying these standards, we could not even count 1,500 people at the rally. That’s not thousands.

Fans packed the three sets of risers behind Trump. Each had fewer than 240 people. In front of Trump, the images showed many empty chairs. There were also images of people leaving partway through Trump’s wandering recitation of grievances and falsehoods, a common occurrence at Trump rallies that is also seldom reported.

DCReport and other news organizations long ago established that many people at Trump rallies are super fans who show up repeatedly. Finding these people in images and interviewing them at rallies is easy. The Trump rallies are thus analogous to the claim that “Atlantic City is America’s No. 1 tourist destination with 32 million visitors” in the late 1980s when I covered that city for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Actually, Atlantic City had about two million gamblers who visited the casinos on average every three weeks.

We invite skeptical readers to check our Waco rally count and contact us via the DCReport Tip Line. But please provide evidence of meticulous counting, copies of the images used, details of counting techniques, and how and when to contact you.

An Old Trick

Trump has been inflating his claims about crowds since long before he came down the Trump Tower escalator with Melania on June 16, 2015, declaring that thousands of people were present.

Anyone who has been in the lobby of Trump Tower knows that that would be a physical impossibility. But, of course, relatively few Americans have ever visited the squeezed pink marble interior on Fifth Avenue.

The failure of politics reporters to point out this foundational lie in 2015 helped propel Trump to the White House.

The politics reporters in attendance that day didn’t even report that something seemed odd about a loud portion of the crowd that broke into applause, on cue, 43 times as Trump spouted his racist rhetoric. That journalistic failing was stunning since Manhattan isn’t known for being hospitable to racists.

One day later, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that those cheering and clapping fans were paid performers. They were television and movie production extras; each paid $50 cash after they helped Trump fabricate an image of overwhelming popularity in Manhattan.

Image Control

Ever since 2015 Trump and his security forces have ousted from his rallies people who pointed cameras at the often-empty seats in the back and sides of venues.

Journalists, confined to a pen, were required to agree to only point cameras where Team Trump instructed, a fact known to relatively few Americans because news organizations rarely, if ever, disclosed this constraint on reporting. And when it was, the facts tended to be buried deep in print and online stories. (Research has established that 85% or so of readers drop off when a Page 1 story jumps to an inside page.)

This journalistic failure is notable because there were easy ways to get around it. For example, my son Andrew, a happy-go-lucky truck driver and disc golfer who lives in New Mexico, attended a Trump rally near Albuquerque.

Capturing Forbidden Images

Andy captured images of the empty seats on his smartphone and wasn’t ejected. How? By cajoling people into posing with him for selfies and then having them all stand at angles that captured images that Trump’s security was supposed to block.

DCReport sent university journalism students to Trump rallies in Arizona and North Carolina with identical instructions on capturing the kinds of images Trump suppressed. They succeeded, as you can see here and here.

Here and there, you can find news stories showing that Trump has had difficulty since 2020 filling arenas, but they tended to be in regional and local outlets. That was, of course, the first year of the pandemic. But the dwindling crowds are a continuing issue even though Trump holds his rallies in locales where the GOP dominates.

DCReportinformed readers about a 2022 Orlando Sentinel article showing that at a venue with a listed capacity of 8,700, Trump fans bought only 5,406 tickets. Giving away seats expanded his crowd to 6,200 supporters. Still, almost 30 percent of the seats were empty.

A December 2021 Trump rally in Sunrise, Florida, with disgraced Fox television host Bill O’Reilly, drew such a small crowd that people assigned to the upper tier of the venue were moved down near the stage. Trump staff told these supporters that they had been upgraded.

Lies like that one will always fool Trump supporters, among whom blind allegiance and rejection of facts are cultural and ideological dogma.

But politics reporters, whom Trump so successfully conned over the last eight years, owe their audiences a higher duty. Checking the facts on how many people turn out at Trump rallies while contrasting that with Trump’s claims is one of the easiest yet most important things that America’s politics journalists can and should do.

Reprinted with permission from DC Report.


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