“No matter where we go, we have these massive crowds,” Trump said within seconds of taking the stage before an smaller audience. “We just left one that was 11,000. … It's been amazing, the receptivity. There’s never been anything like this in this country.”
That same afternoon, Hillary Clinton rallied with first lady Michelle Obama at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. The crowd count there: 11,000.
Ever since Trump launched his presidential campaign in June 2015, he has attracted massive crowds to rallies across the country. During the primaries, Trump’s head counts were nearly always larger than those of his Republican rivals or Clinton’s, whose audiences back then usually topped out at 1,000. But instead of celebrating the actual size of these crowds, Trump has routinely exaggerated the already large numbers.
A prime example: One of Trump’s earliest mega-rallies was in Phoenix in July 2015. Even as he continued to face blowback for his controversial comments about undocumented immigrants, thousands requested tickets and his campaign had to move to a bigger venue — where 4,200 people showed up, stunning Republicans and others who thought the entertainer had no chance. But within days, Trump had inflated that crowd size to 15,000.
That level of exaggeration has continued into the general election, with Trump repeatedly inflating his numbers while mocking Clinton for attracting small crowds. But with Election Day less than two weeks away, Clinton’s crowds have slowly begun to resemble those of Trump — or those of her primary rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (Vt.) — as is typical at this point in the campaign.
Former staff members for Mitt Romney, the 2012 Republican nominee, have noted on Twitter that the rallies Trump is holding now resemble the ones Romney held in October 2012, regularly attracting more than 10,000 people, even though he went on to lose the election to President Obama. (The Romney campaign also claimed in November 2012 that 30,000 people attended a rally in Ohio, although law enforcement had pegged the crowd at 15,000 to 18,000.)
This month, Trump’s campaign discontinued emails to political reporters titled: “A tale of two campaigns.” The emails would compare Trump’s crowd sizes to Clinton’s, often including tweets from the candidate or photos taken by reporters. One such email in late September declared: “Donald Trump’s Florida rally dwarfs Clinton’s North Carolina rally held earlier today.” The email cites a tweet from Trump, claiming that 15,000 people were at a rally in Melbourne and that 12,000 were turned away, even though local police put the head count at 10,000 and said that 6,000 to 8,000 were turned away. That same day, Clinton held a rally at a community college that attracted 1,400. Either way, Trump’s crowd dramatically outnumbered Clinton’s, yet the campaign opted for the inflated counts.
This month, as some of Clinton’s rallies became as large if not larger than Trump’s, his campaign stopped sending out the email comparison. But Trump has continued making the comparisons himself, sometimes pointing to his crowd sizes as a more accurate predictor of election results than scientific polls.
Trump’s campaign has yet to respond to a request for comment for this story.
And for more than a year, Trump has yelled at reporters for not properly showing the crowds at his events, even though television set shots and news photographs often do.
Most of the time, however, the cameras are trained on him, and Trump's campaign team makes sure there are plenty of people in the background. In Toledo, even though Trump attracted a smaller and notably more subdued crowd than is typical for him, he stood against the backdrop of three sets of inclined stands, which were full, but on the floor in front of him, there was room to spare. Nevertheless, Trump bragged, “That’s a big group.”
He did the same at his last rally of the day on Thursday in Geneva, Ohio.
“What a crowd! What a crowd!” Trump said as he took the stage. “And you've got thousands and thousands of people standing outside trying to get in. ... I was just watching the television, I watched one of the commentators say that we have a few thousand people here, a few thousand. You know a few thousand people? That means 3,000 people. He said: 'Yeah, we have a few thousand people.' And I said: 'Oh, these people, forget it.' This is not a few thousand. To me, a few thousand is 3,000. This is no 3,000, this is 13,000 or 15,000, but this is no 3,000. And this is 20,000 if we get them in, so we'll try getting them in.”
In this case, Trump was backed up by officials at that venue in Geneva, who said Friday that Trump had about 15,000 at the rally, with a few thousand people turned away.
Other than that case, exaggeration was the norm when Trump attempted to estimate the crowd size.
In Tampa on Monday, Trump estimated the crowd at 20,000 with 7,000 more people outside, while the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office told the Tampa Bay Times that the rally attracted 15,000 people with another 1,000 not allowed into the packed venue. (On Wednesday, Clinton held a rally in Palm Beach County that attracted 2,100 and a rally in Tampa that attracted 4,500.)
Trump said that his Tuesday night in Tallahassee attracted 25,000 people, even though the Leon County Republican Party chairman told the Tallahassee Democrat that the crowd was between 6,000 and 7,000. Trump's campaign had considered renting out a 12,000-seat arena for the rally, but decided not to do so, according to the newspaper. A rally earlier Tuesday in Sanford, Fla., attracted as many as 12,000 people.
At a rally in Charlotte on Wednesday, Trump bragged that he regularly has “rallies of 25,000 and 30,000 people.” At Trump's rally in Mobile, Ala., in August 2015, local officials estimated that 30,000 showed up to the Mobile's Ladd-Peebles football stadium, which seats about 43,000. But no other rallies have reached that size. Trump claims that a February rally that he held in Madison, Ala., attracted 32,000 people, but the Madison police estimated a crowd of 12,000 to 15,000 people, according to local media reports.
While Trump consistently attracts thousands of people to rallies, often several times a day, he usually tops out at around 15,000. And his crowds often are larger than those at Clinton rallies. Clinton's biggest crowd yet was on Oct. 10 at an outdoor rally in Columbus, Ohio, that attracted 18,000 screaming supporters.
In March, President Obama provided a bit of context to Trump rally crowd sizes during a fundraiser in Austin.
“In 2008, we had rallies with 50,000, 80,000, 100,000 people,” Obama said. “I’m not bragging, I’m just saying we had some big rallies. Sometimes you hear folks say, ‘Oh, that rally is big.’ I say, ‘I don’t know. We had some pretty big rallies.’ I’m just saying.”
Johnson reported from Washington. Abby Phillip and Rebecca Sinderbrand contributed to this report.