2016 Elite Cues and Public Misperception about Crime

The overestimation of crime rates is one of the most enduring and prevalent misperceptions in the U.S. Despite evidence clearly pointing to declines in various measures of crime in essentially every year over the last few decades, majorities of Americans during this same time span have consistently said crime has been increasing over the previous year. Just as curious is the lack of a role for partisanship and partisan motivated reasoning in understanding the nature of support for this misperception. For the most part, similar numbers of Democrats and Republicans have held this misperception of a rising crime rate over time, in contrast to perceptions of other national conditions like the economy.

The 2016 election introduced an important wrinkle into this topic, as Donald Trump all but endorsed this misperception and campaign on concerns over rising crime. His rhetoric on crime arguably represented the strongest elite message communicated to the public concerning this misperception. A shift like this where one party/elite supports one side of an issue while the other (Democrats/Clinton) do not express this message seems ripe to produce a “polarization effect” that John Zaller describes in Chapter 6 of his book on elite cues and public opinion, The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion. Specifically, with the introduction of two-sided elite messages on this issue, we should expect for partisan opinion to become more polarized and especially among the most politically aware (i.e., those most likely to receive elite messages such as through the media). Data from Pew in the weeks leading up to the 2016 election–shown in the plot below–offers strong support for this pattern.


Those most likely to receive elite cues–as measured by how closely they say they’ve been following news about candidates in the election (shown on the x-axis)–do indeed prove most polarized on where their perceptions of crime fall. The most attentive Democrats endorse the misperception the least, while the most attentive Republicans endorse the misperception the most. It’s worth noting that this same dynamic doesn’t always appear around election time–similar questions about crime perception did not see the same pattern of support by party and news attentiveness in the 2000 and 2008 elections:



It’s thus clear that the Zaller-type polarization effect is specific to 2016. Furthermore, the 2016 election case shows that elite cues prove potent enough to polarize perceptions of factual conditions–not just opinion on policy issues like Zaller focuses on in his work. Related to the original question of interest, evidence like this shows that the enduring crime misperception can fall subject to elite and partisan manipulation. This of course emerged from the thick of the 2016 election and a especially strong elite message environment. Later data from Gallup in 2017–though worded differently and coming from a different organization–shows that partisan homogeneity in the crime misperception has returned and reflects the same level of belief in rising crime that was recorded in years before the 2016 election. Perhaps elite rhetoric on crime subsiding after the election weakened the initial polarization effect seen during the campaign, with crime misperceptions proving resilient and entrenched after getting interrupted by a temporary response to elite messages.

Update 5/29/18:

Below is more comprehensive data on this topic and some context for the unexpectedly small role of partisanship in crime perceptions. The first graph shows crime perceptions by party while the second one shows economic perceptions by party. 2016 did indeed usher in larger partisan fissures in crime (mis)perception, but that quickly shrunk the following year.


In addition, compared to perceptions of other national conditions–those about the economy–crime perceptions are much less divided by partisanship and by the party that holds that presidency (which serves as an indication of partisan motivated reasoning).


Across all years, 38 percent of Democrats on average say economic conditions are getting worse when their party is in power while 66 percent say so when out of power (28 point difference). For Republicans, on average, it’s 61 percent when in power and 34 percent when out of power (27 point difference). For crime perceptions, the differences prove much more muted, but especially for Democrats. Across all years that a Republican president is in power, an average of 55 percent of Republicans say crime is rising. When out of power, Republicans say this 20 percentage points more (75 percent). On the other hand, 64 percent of Democrats say crime is rising compared to the previous year when they are out of power while 62 percent do so when they are in power. Putting aside the interesting partisan asymmetry here, the magnitude of the differences is particularly notable: on average across all years, partisans are separated by 29 percentage points in economic perceptions, but for crime, the average absolute difference is 13 points.


2016 Elite Cues and Public Misperception about Crime

5 thoughts on “2016 Elite Cues and Public Misperception about Crime

  1. The graphs are missing an important line: actual crime rates. It’s clear that republicans and democrats perceive rates to be different depending on which party holds the White House, but which is correct?


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