'Raftergate' Explained: Was Trump's Pensacola Rally 'Packed to the Rafters?'

Another day, another discussion of crowd size at a Trump event.

Published Dec 9, 2017

 (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)
Image Via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

In what has become a characteristic feature of the Trump presidency, a Twitter dispute regarding crowd size went viral on 9 December 2017. In this case, the contested crowd had gathered the night before to hear Mr. Trump speak at a rally in Pensacola, Florida. The speech, just before a special election for U.S. Senator in neighboring Alabama, was newsworthy because the President used it to urge to people to "get out and vote for Roy Moore," the former Alabama judge beleaguered by accusations of engaging in relationships with and sexually harassing teenaged girls.

The dispute began following an early Saturday morning tweet from the President about the previous evening’s attendance:

In response, a number of people responded with photographs purporting to show that the arena was not full. Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel tweeted (and later deleted) one such image of seemingly empty crowds, shedding doubt on Trump’s description:

That photograph, however, was not taken during Trump’s speech. In response, Donald Trump tweeted a series of pictures showing him speaking in front of a considerably larger crowd, demanding — and receiving — an apology from Weigel:

Weigel here is referring to what appears to be a Trump-like figure walking in the bottom right of the photograph he initially shared — something a number of commenters on the internet have suggested disputes, in a very narrow way, Trump’s claim of the image being taken "hours" before he arrived.

Whether or not it the man in the picture is Trump is fairly immaterial to the broader point of crowd size during his speech. That picture was clearly taken at a time far removed from the speech, and videos from people in attendance at the rally show that the crowd size shown in the images Trump tweeted is an accurate representation of the crowd when he was speaking:

As Twitter is not a digital arena known for backing down from a semantic fight, people there continued the debate over the "to the rafters" portion of Mr. Trump’s contention. At issue are the unfilled upper decks behind and in front of the president. Perhaps because these seats would literally be the closest to the "rafters," and because they were darkened during the time in which Trump was speaking, an argument could be (and was) made that the arena was not literally packed, but made to look that way:

For those interested in disputing the most literal interpretation of Trump’s claims, video from his speech and the photographs Trump himself shared support the view that these upper decks were not full. Whether or not that means Trump was misleading in his tweet about crowd size is as much a question as it is a personal choice.

What is undisputed, however, is that early images showing a nearly empty crowd during his Pensacola speech are misleading, as they show a crowd much smaller than the one that was gathered during Trump’s actual speech; claims that the venue was completely packed are also misleading, as while later photographs and videos clearly a larger crowd, they also show many empty seats.


Allen, Jonathan.   "Trump Says ‘Get Out and Vote for Roy Moore’ at Florida Rally."     NBC News.   8 December 2017.

Hammond, Paula.   "Trump Boasts of ‘Packed to the Rafters’ Florida Rally After Online Photos Show Mostly Empty Upper Deck"     Raw Story.   9 December 2017.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.