Central to Donald Trump’s presidential candidacy was the idea that the United States was beset by all manner of threats: terrorists pouring over the border, immigrants undercutting the economy and crime spiking. “The first task for our new administration will be to liberate our citizens from the crime and terrorism and lawlessness that threatens their communities,” Trump said during his convention speech and, despite deaths from terrorism being rare in the United States and the violent crime rate being lower now than it was when Barack Obama took office, the message clearly stuck.
Every two years, a national survey of political and social attitudes is conducted, called the General Social Survey. When it was conducted in 2014, 46 percent of respondents felt as thought the country was spending too little nationally on law enforcement. That figure had been trending downward since 2006. But in 2016, a spike back up, over the 50 percent mark.
Why? To some extent because of independents who indicated that they felt America should spend more on national law enforcement efforts. (Among independents, the figure topped 50 percent for the first time since the 1990s.) But mostly it was Republicans. The percent of Republicans saying that they felt as though too little was being spent on law enforcement surged 18 percentage points — up 34 percent — since the 2014 survey.
The figure in 2016 among Republicans was above the previous high-water mark, set in 1994.
In 1994, the national violent crime rate was 713.6 incidents per 100,000 residents. In 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, it was 372.6 — just over half the 1994 rate.
How much of this is attributable to Trump’s rhetoric isn’t clear. Trump deftly seized upon issues that were already of concern to conservative Republicans over the course of his campaign, so he may have been trailing the trend, not leading it. What’s more, the issue of law enforcement became heavily politicized over the past two years, as high-profile incidents of police shooting criminal suspects and innocent people polarized the issue.
Interestingly, the number of people who want to spend more on law enforcement consistently trails the number interested in spending to fight crime. (The latter question has been asked for longer.)
There’s no real difference on that question when it comes to politics; Republicans and Democrats both are about as likely to say we’re spending too little in that regard. (Notice the change to the vertical axis on this graph.) There’s been an upward trend among each political group for the past several surveys.
Where there’s a split is on race. Black Americans are far more likely to say that we should spend more on fighting crime than are whites.
Yet they are no more likely to say that we should spend more on law enforcement.
Republicans are the only group to think we’re spending too little on law enforcement and on crime to the same extent. Among no group is the gulf of opinions on that spending wider than among black Americans, who are 26 percentage points more likely to say we’re spending too little on crime than on law enforcement.
That black Americans should be more skeptical of law enforcement two years after the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement isn’t surprising. That said, the percentage of black Americans who think too little is spent on national law enforcement didn’t decrease since 2014, but instead stayed flat.
Trump has apparently made his priority here clear. His recent budget proposal focuses on adding new national law enforcement in the form of Border Patrol agents. Funding for efforts to reduce crime through preventive measures were, like many other line items, slashed.
The General Social Survey was funded primarily by the National Science Foundation and conducted through in-person interviews with a random national sample of roughly 1,900 adults in the spring of 2016. Overall results carry a margin of sampling error of roughly 2.5 percentage points; the error margin for subgroups is larger.