WASHINGTON ― The majority of Americans believe ― incorrectly ― that crime is up in the United States over the past decade, and only a small fraction correctly state that crime is down. While only a small percentage say crime is a very serious problem in their own community, the majority are convinced it’s a very serious problem in the country overall. That’s great news for Donald Trump.
Most Americans, 61 percent, falsely believe that the level of crime in the United States has increased over the past decade, according to a poll conducted by The Huffington Post and YouGov. Just 15 percent of Americans said they believed ― correctly ― that crime rates in the United States had decreased over the past decade.
The statistics indicate that false beliefs about crime rates are shaped not by lived experience or by an analysis of government crime statistics, but by people’s perceptions typically influenced by news coverage and social media in an era in which people may be more aware of individual crimes than they may have been in the past. While just 13 percent of Americans believe crime is a very serious problem in their own community, 53 percent believe crime is a very serious problem in the nation overall.
In his speech accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for president, Trump declared himself the “law and order” candidate. While he hasn’t detailed the role he believes the government should play in policing, which is largely a function of local governance, he promised that “crime and violence” would “come to an end” once he becomes president and “safety will be restored,” despite the fact that Americans are currently living in one of the safest periods in history.
Even as the American population has continued to expand, there were fewer violent crimes committed in 2014 than there were in any year in the past several decades. (While preliminary FBI statistics show a slight increase in the violent crime rates in the first six months of 2015 compared to the first six months of 2014, the crime rates in the 30 largest cities stayed flat in 2015, according to a Brennan Center analysis. Even if the final numbers for 2015 show a slight increase from the historically low crime rates of 2014, they will not remotely approach the rates seen a decade ago, which are around 30 percent higher than they are today.)
While just 8 percent of Americans over 65 believed crime was a very serious problem in their own community, 64 percent of the same group believed that crime was a very serious problem in the nation overall. Nearly three out of four elderly Americans ― 73 percent ― falsely believe that crime has increased over the past decade.
Women were also very likely to falsely believe that crime is up over the past decade ― 72 percent of women believed it was up nationwide compared to 48 percent of men. Just 6 percent of women correctly stated that crime had decreased over the past decade, compared to 23 percent of males.
A nearly equal percentage of Democrats and Republicans ― 15 and 14 percent, respectively ― said that crime was a very serious problem in their own community. But Republicans were 14 points likelier than Democrats to see crime as a serious problem nationwide, and 19 points likelier to say that the problem was growing. Republicans were also significantly likelier to say that the issue would be of high importance to their vote this year.
While just 10 percent of whites believed crime was a very serious problem in their own communities, the majority ― 52 percent ― were convinced that crime is a very serious problem across the nation. Black Americans were much more likely to identify crime as a major issue in their own communities ― 20 percent said it was a serious problem where they lived ― and were slightly more likely than white voters to say that crime was a very serious problem in the nation overall.
Sixty-nine percent of all Americans said that crime would be at least a somewhat important issue for them when they head to the polls this November. But even among that group, just 17 percent reported high levels of crime in their community, and more than 40 percent called local crime issues not very or not at all serious.
As Trump describes a country in chaos that is plagued by crime, and positions himself as the only person who can restore law and order, Americans’ false perception of crime may offer him a major boost. Those false beliefs about crime rates can also hurt efforts at criminal justice reform, which have received bipartisan support in recent years.
“That’s unfortunate that the consciousness of our country is not aligned with the facts and the details,” Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), a Hillary Clinton supporter and strong advocate for criminal justice reform, told The Huffington Post when informed of the results of the survey. “If people really are believing that crime is up over the last decade and not down, that’s really problematic because it affects often policy decisions that are being made.”
Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, in an interview with The Huffington Post on the floor of the Republican National Convention on the night of Trump’s acceptance speech, admitted that crime has gone down in the country over his time in law enforcement but said people might not have that view.
“I know the perception is there. When you look at statistics, however you want to figure them out, I don’t know,” Arpaio said, noting that crime was down in his own county.
Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) said in a brief interview at the RNC that he believes crime is up. “If you want to know, you look at the FBI statistics, and the ones I’ve seen are spiking,” he said. “It doesn’t matter what anybody thinks.” He then acknowledged that the statistics showed crime was down over the past decade, but pointed to recent violent spikes in some cities, which he blamed on society becoming more liberal, as well as on strict gun laws.
Mark Klecka, a 62-year-old delegate from Texas who lives just outside of Houston, said in an interview at the RNC that he also believes that crime is up.
“You can make the numbers decline by just not criminalizing things,” he said. “A neighbor of mine had his garage broken into, they found a guy in there rummaging through the garage, and the sheriff pulls ups and says, ‘Well, you can write him a ticket for trespassing.’”
“There’s more crime out there, I think,” Klecka said. “We need to show that there is more crime and get police tools to enforce the law.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Gohmert believed crime is rising in part due to lax gun laws. In fact, he said stricter gun laws were partly to blame.
The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Aug. 1-Aug. 3 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.
The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls.You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.
Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.