Most Americans Are Buying Into President Trump's False Arguments About Crime

The president is running a fear-based campaign that tries to tap into Americans’ incorrect beliefs about crime.

Most Americans incorrectly believe crime is on the rise nationally, a new HuffPost/YouGov poll finds, although few are seriously concerned about crime in their own communities. As they did in 2016, Americans’ false perceptions of crime rates stand to potentially benefit President Donald Trump, who has stoked fears about crime in cities and promised to protect mostly white suburbs from demographic groups he claims will bring in crime. At the same time, however, concerns about crime have ticked down since the last election, and most voters’ attention remains on other issues.

Over the past month, the Trump campaign has flooded the airwaves with ads mentioning crime ― between July 1 and July 26, 85% of the president’s ads dealt in some way with the topic of public safety, while none focused on the current coronavirus pandemic.

Forty-four percent of Americans say they believe crime is a very serious problem nationally, down from 53% who shared this belief in an August 2016 survey, when then-candidate Trump was also campaigning on a vision of restoring order to a nation he portrayed as plagued by lawlessness. Still, a 57% majority currently say they believe crime has increased over the past decade.

Just 10% of Americans believe, correctly, that crime rates decreased over the past decade. According to FBI statistics, both the violent crime rate and the property crime rate dropped between 2008 and 2018, the last year for which data is available. The FBI’s preliminary 2019 data shows yet another drop. While there’s been an increase in violent crime in certain cities in recent months, even those spikes remain extremely unlikely to reverse the historic downward trend in crime rates.

Views remain sharply divided along political lines: 63% of voters who backed Trump in the 2016 election call crime a very serious national problem, compared to 35% of those who voted for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. An 81% majority of Trump voters — but just 43% of Clinton voters — say they think crime is on the rise.

Far fewer Americans are concerned about crime rates closer to home. Just 12% say that crime is a very serious problem in their community, and just 29% say that crime has increased in their community over the past decade. So while relatively few Americans think crime is a very serious problem or on the rise in their communities, nearly half of Americans think crime is a very serious problem nationally and the majority think crime is on the rise nationally. That suggests that many Americans’ views of crime rates are largely shaped by social media and national or regional media coverage of crime, and not necessarily lived experience or personal knowledge.

There’s little sign of a partisan gap at the community level ― a roughly equivalent 11% of Clinton voters and 14% of Trump voters call crime in their areas a serious problem. There are, however, racial and geographic divides: 21% of Black Americans and 22% of city-dwellers call crime a very serious concern, compared to 11% of white Americans and 6% of those living in less densely populated areas.

Results of a HuffPost/YouGov poll on perceptions of crime.
Results of a HuffPost/YouGov poll on perceptions of crime.
Ariel Edwards-Levy/HuffPost

Among registered voters, 44% say that crime will be a very important issue in their vote for president this year, with 62% of Trump’s 2016 voters — but just about a third of Clinton supporters — calling it very important. In a separate poll, when voters were asked to choose three top issues from a list of 15, just 12% picked crime, ranking it far behind issues like the economy, health care and coronavirus. Another survey, from Reuters/Ipsos, found the same trend even among white suburbanites.

A recent Trump ad, featuring an elderly white woman watching television news as a burglar breaks into her home, appeals to a demographic particularly susceptible to fear-based appeals on crime. Older Americans are particularly likely to believe (incorrectly) that crime is on the rise nationally: 72% of those over 65 and 67% of those between 45 and 64 believe crime rose nationally over the past decade, and majorities of both of those groups described crime as a very serious national problem. Even so, only about half of voters over 65 described crime as very important to their 2020 presidential vote.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll came the same week Trump stoked racist fears in an appeal to white suburbanites, warning about an impending invasion of low-income housing that only he could stop. Touting his rescinding of an Obama-era fair housing rule, Trump told people living their “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” that “crime will go down” in the suburbs because of his action. The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing mandate required suburbs subsidized by federal grants and aid to evaluate their racial segregation and offer plans to address the issue. (Suburbs, which exploded during an even more explicitly racist period in American history, were heavily subsidized by the federal government, which for decades locked Black Americans out of the opportunity to build up their savings through homeownership, exacerbating the current massive racial gap in wealth.)

The reasons for disparities in violent crime rates are unquestionably complex, but racial segregation ― and the increased concentrations of poverty that the government’s subsidization of white-only suburbs brought about ― undeniably remains a key driving factor today. Trump, instead of engaging in the growing national dialogue around the consequences of historic government-backed racist policies and potential modern-day remedies, has sought to reassure white suburbanites benefiting from the explicitly racist housing policies of the past that he’ll maintain the status quo and kill even modest efforts to help remedy past inequities.

Trump’s return to a major component of his 2016 playbook isn’t particularly surprising. His Justice Department brushed aside its mandate to reform troubled police departments, all but abandoning the federal government’s police reform work based in part on the belief that highlighting patterns of unconstitutional conduct against American citizens hurts police officers’ feelings. Trump also endorsed police brutality in a speech he gave to members of law enforcement.

For the 2020 campaign, Trump is falsely claiming that Joe Biden ― who championed a massive, federally subsidized expansion of local police forces in the 1990s ― wants to defund police departments. Trump’s warnings about crime have come after his long-running attacks on federal law enforcement officials, whom he’s criticized for investigating crimes committed by his friends and associates. Trump’s attacks on the FBI even boosted the defense of three Trump supporters later convicted in a domestic terrorism plot targeting a community of Muslim refugees.

Still, it’s tough for Trump to paint Biden, a well-established white politician with a long history of support for and from law enforcement, as an anti-cop radical. So he’s also targeted (often Black) mayors and progressive prosecutors in major cities whom he accuses of enabling and coddling rioters during the protests that began after a white police officer killed George Floyd, a Black man, in late May.

Use the widget below to further explore the results of the HuffPost/YouGov survey, using the menu at the top to select survey questions and the buttons at the bottom to filter the data by subgroups.

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted July 22-24 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.

HuffPost 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. 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.

Popular in the Community