The battle began on the first full day of Donald Trump’s presidency, when the newly elected president instructed his minions to publicly exaggerate the size of his inauguration crowds.

The fight raged on as Trump continued to obsess and fret over crowd size — boasting, touting and sometimes inflating his own adoring masses at campaign rallies and presidential events. 

Then finally this week, the Democrats — who have long tried to ignore Trump’s bigger-is-better ethos — offered a tangible response of their own in the form of Elizabeth Warren’s Monday evening rally in New York City’s Washington Square Park, where the senator from Massachusetts showed that she, too, could match the spectacle of Trump, right down to the large cheering throngs.

“Yeah, the lines keep getting longer,” Warren told reporters in New York on Tuesday, when asked about the four-hour wait for photos with her that capped her Monday rally, which was attended by more than 20,000 people. “That’s a good thing!” 

During her campaign, presidential candidate Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) celebrated her photo line, which she says has now reached 100,000 selfies. (The Washington Post)

Once widely regarded as an interesting but ultimately inconsequential novelty of political campaigns, crowd size is now a potentially meaningful metric of electability — one that can translate into volunteers, donors and, as Trump demonstrated in 2016, actual momentum. Ever since, Trump has consistently drawn large audiences to his rallies, many of them held in less populated parts of the country and attracting supporters who often drive hours, across multiple states, to attend.

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One on Tuesday en route to California, Trump rejected the significance of Warren’s Monday night masses — and with no evidence rebutted her crowd count — saying that “anybody” can attract crowds “standing in the middle of Manhattan in the most densely populated area of the country.”

“I get these crowds in areas that nobody’s ever seen crowds before,” Trump continued. “Pretty amazing. Certainly if I went to Manhattan, if I went there — number one, she didn’t have 20,000 people, and number two, I think anybody would get a good crowd there.”

Nonetheless, the multitudes who gathered after a light rain to hear Warren’s plan to fix what she describes as systematic corruption — and to cheer her rebuke of Trump as “corruption in the flesh” — provided clear evidence that Warren, even in a Democratic primary, can compete on the same terms as a president who revels in crowd size above almost all else. 

“Big, structural change in Washington Square Park with @ewarren,” tweeted Warren communications director Kristen Orthman, captioning a photo of the park’s marble arch overflowing with Warren supporters — so many specks of frozen fervor — and glowing incandescent in the moonlight. 

The missive captured Warren’s pitch of major government and corporate overhaul but also seemed a clear allusion to her crowd size, which New York City’s park service initially expected to number between 8,000 and 10,000 people before more than doubling those early estimates. 

'Hours and hours'

Warren’s crowds show “that not only does she have broad reach — she has broad enthusiasm,” said Rebecca Katz, a liberal strategist who hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the presidential primary. To defeat Trump in the general election, she said, Democrats will need to nominate someone who generates the same excitement — pointing to the long line of Warren supporters who waited until nearly midnight for photos of her as one indication of her appeal.

“They were staying at her events for hours and hours after she finished,” Katz said. “There’s a lot of talk about raising money and electability, but there’s nothing nearly as important to winning in 2020 as voter enthusiasm.”

To Warren supporters, too, the overwhelming crowd size was meaningful. 

“It’s so democratizing for a major presidential candidate to stand and wait for all the people who obviously want to see her,” gushed Devon Racinelli, 25, who was last in one of two lines that formed for photos with Warren on Monday night. The wait was so long that he had attended the rally, went to dinner and then returned for the picture. 

The size of the crowd also inspired some to view a Warren candidacy as truly viable.

“When you see the crowds turn out, and you see the energy and what she has to say, you realize that the message can start to reverberate,” said Townsend Barber, 45, a student at New York University.

To understand how Elizabeth Warren became a presidential contender, you have to start in Massachusetts. (The Washington Post)

In some ways, both Trump and Warren are making similar appeals to fiery populism, but with very different approaches. Warren’s supporters chant “Two cents!” — a shorthand for her proposed annual wealth tax on those with fortunes over $50 million — while Trump’s crowds cheer “Build the wall!” in reference to his promised border barrier.

Those who attend Warren events also tend to file in shortly before she starts speaking and then stay hours afterward for a photo. Many of Trump’s backers, meanwhile, come hours early — including some who camp out the night before — but then sometimes trickle out early as the president is still speaking.

For years the conventional wisdom among campaign strategists was that big crowds don’t matter much in actually turning out voters, but the 2016 campaign cycle scrambled that assumption. Now key Democrats in Iowa, which holds the first primary contest, are keeping a careful watch.

“Everyone is obsessed with finding the most ‘electable’ candidate, but no one really knows what that means,” said Zach Simonson, the chair of the Wapello County Democrats in Iowa who was impressed with Warren’s New York event. “For a lot of people, part of electability is seeing that a candidate can generate excitement and draw big crowds. Hillary Clinton didn’t really do that last time; Trump does in a way Republicans usually don’t. Taking back some of that populist momentum would be huge.”

In 2016, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) also pulled in massive crowds for his Democratic presidential run. At the time, Clinton’s supporters played down his strength. 

“Hillary Clinton supporters were the ones saying crowds don’t matter” in 2016, said Patti Solis Doyle, who ran Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. “When you have the ability to get 20,000 at a rally, it is significant, and your opponents should be concerned.” 

Sanders continues to draw some sizable rally crowds, including about 10,000 at a recent event in Denver, and aides like to post pictures of his more impressive crowds on social media. But in other settings, his attendance has been more inconsistent. His first stop on a college tailgate tour in Iowa one Sunday afternoon this month drew an underwhelming number of attendees.

'It was noticed'

Alex Conant, a Republican strategist who worked as a senior adviser on the 2016 presidential campaign of Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), said it was initially difficult to know how much weight to give to Trump’s massive crowds, in part because he often eschewed events in traditional early-voting states in favor of large rallies in Republican strongholds such as Alabama and Georgia. Trump also held events in solidly Democratic states, like Massachusetts. 

“Trump would go have the greatest show in town, and it was hard to tell how many people were turning out because they supported him versus just coming for the free entertainment,” Conant said. “Everyone was late to appreciate the seriousness of his candidacy, but once he started winning places, it became apparent that people weren’t just turning out because he put on a great show, but there was real support there.”

Conant added that, like Trump, Warren is drawing her biggest crowds not in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire but in Democratic strongholds like St. Paul, Minn., and Manhattan. 

But, he said, “it is an indication that there is widespread support and deeper enthusiasm for her than there is for some of the candidates. If you’re going to go to the trouble to show up at an event, you’re probably going to vote, and you’re more likely to donate or talk to your neighbors about voting, too.”

Trump allies say that while Warren’s supporters may have provided an impressive showing this week, the events by her and other Democrats still pale in comparison to the overflow crowds the president regularly addresses.

On Monday, for example, the president held a large campaign rally in Rio Rancho, N.M. — a state that Clinton, as the Democratic presidential nominee, won by more than eight percentage points. 

“Every venue President Trump visits reaches capacity, frequently setting individual venue attendance records, with overflow crowds remaining outside to watch on big screens,” Tim Murtaugh, a Trump campaign spokesman, said in an email statement. “There’s no movement of this magnitude in modern political history.”

He added, “It’s no great feat for a leftist to attract people in Manhattan or Seattle and it probably took Warren’s campaign weeks of planning to do even that.”

Still, one Republican operative in frequent touch with the White House, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to offer a candid assessment, noted that for all the dismissiveness, Trump himself did pay attention to Warren’s event.

“It was noticed by the fire marshal in chief,” the operative quipped.

Linskey reported from New York. Amy B Wang and Sean Sullivan contributed to this report.