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The Geography of Occupying Wall Street (and Everywhere Else)

The nascent movement known as Occupy Wall Street had its largest single day of protests on Saturday. And a funny thing happened: most of the action was far from Wall Street itself.

No, I don’t mean at Zuccotti Park — which is not, technically, on Wall Street. Nor do I mean Times Square — all of 19 minutes away from Wall Street on the C train — where large crowds of protesters gathered on Saturday.

Instead, I mean Europe, where crowds in cities like Rome, Barcelona and Madrid were estimated at 200,000 to 500,000 per city (more, probably, than the protests in the United States combined). And I mean California and other parts of the Western United States, where crowds were proportionately much larger than in the Northeast or elsewhere in the country.

Leaving aside Europe, where the Occupy protests merged, not always seamlessly, with those sponsored by left-wing groups, the distribution of protests throughout the United States may reveal something about the political orientation of the protesters.

The way that I studied this was to search through hundreds of local news accounts for credible estimates of the crowd sizes for each gathering. Where possible, I used estimates provided by reporters or public safety officials rather than the protesters themselves, as they are less subject to exaggeration. In some cases, there were multiple estimates of the size of the protest in a given city — they ranged, for instance, from about 5,000 to 15,000 for the New York protests — in which case I used the median estimate.

This exercise is meant, in part, to provide a comparison to the crowds that gathered for the first widespread Tea Party protests on April 15, 2009, for which I adopted a similar approach and came up with an estimate of at least 300,000 protesters across the country.

Saturday’s Occupy protests were probably smaller than that. Over all, I was able to find estimates of crowd sizes in about 150 American cities, ranging from the thousands of the protesters that turned out in New York to the roughly 10 who turned out in Juneau, Alaska — or the one protester who represented the movement in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

Nevertheless, based on the median estimates for the cities, I arrived at an overall total of about 70,000 protesters who were documented as having been active on Saturday throughout the United States.

This is very probably an underestimate — there were some protests that were noted in news accounts but without any firm estimates of crowd size. But I’m fairly certain that I captured most of the larger protests. The true overall figure might have been somewhere on the order of 100,000 protesters. That’s pretty big, but not as big as the largest day of Tea Party protests in 2009, nor other recent protests like the pro-immigration gatherings of 2006, which accounted for about 500,000 people in Los Angeles alone.

It should be cautioned that the comparisons are not quite apples to apples. Although Oct. 15 was a focal point for many protesters, the Occupy groups are far more decentralized than even the Tea Party movement,  and the extent to which a concerted effort was made to turn out a large crowd varied a lot from city to city. Some cities also had larger gatherings before the ones held on Saturday.

(People who want to see or expand upon the raw data can find it in an Excel spreadsheet here. Disclaimer: it is provided “as is” and I am unlikely to do any further work on crowd-counting.)

Nevertheless, the data is in reasonable enough shape that we should be able to make some inferences about the types of cities in which the largest numbers of protesters were gathered. They tended to be in the West.

Over all, about 38,000 protesters — more than half of the documented total — turned out in the Western Census Bureau Region, which accounts for about 23 percent of the country’s population. On a per capita basis, the West drew about two and a half times the protesters in the Northeast, four times those in the Midwest, and five times those in the South. And it wasn’t necessarily in large cities — although places like Los Angeles and Seattle had large crowds, so did the wine-and-cheese town of Santa Rosa, Calif., and the college town of Eugene, Ore., among others.

This could be due to a number of factors. Perhaps it has something to do with race, for instance. Cities where blacks make up a majority of the population, like Detroit, New Orleans and Cleveland, have tended to have underwhelming numbers of protesters and poorly organized Occupy groups. (There are plenty of those cities in the South, the Northeast and even the Midwest — but not really in the Western United States).

Or maybe it has something to do with technology: Much of the organizational activity for the Occupy movement has taken place online, and the West Coast is particularly tech-savvy.

I suspect that more than anything, however, it reflects the politics of the protesters. Specifically, they tend to be more liberal than Democratic. Take liberalism, subtract the Democratic Party, and the remainder might look something like Occupy Wall Street.

Oregon, for instance, which had among the highest per capita rate of protesters on Saturday, has the fourth-highest fraction of self-identified liberals. But it also has a large number of independents — and its share of proud Republicans — so its partisan balance between Democrats and Republicans is fairly average.

By contrast, a state like West Virginia has a large number of Democrats but few liberals — and there were almost no accounts of protest activity there.

So perhaps the protesters are more ideologically minded than they are interested in partisan politics. In fact, they may be relatively disengaged from “politics as usual.” In a somewhat informal New York magazine survey of 100 protesters in Manhattan, only 39 percent reported having voted in the 2010 midterm elections.

All of this could create headaches for the Democratic Party — and for the protesters — if it tries to co-opt the Occupy movement.

Then again, there are some parallels between the Occupy protests and the Tea Party, which especially at first was more representative of a certain strand of conservatism than of the Republican Party. The Tea Party has become somewhat unpopular now — but Americans had warmer views of it initially, something that is now true of the Occupy protests.

Perhaps it’s the lack of overt partisanship that people are responding favorably to.

Perhaps, even, “post-partisanship” will emerge from the left and right of the country rather than from the center.

So far, despite Occupy Wall Street’s name, its energy seems to be coming from the left coast.

Nate Silver founded and was the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.