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Better or Worse Since the 1950s? Trump and Clinton Supporters at Odds over the Past and Future of the Country

Only four in ten Trump likely voters have great deal of confidence votes will be counted accurately

WASHINGTON — Two weeks before the presidential election, a new national survey finds that supporters of each presidential candidate view cultural changes in America since 1950 very differently. About seven in ten (72 percent) Donald Trump likely voters say American culture and way of life has changed for the worse since the 1950s, while roughly as many (70 percent) Hillary Clinton likely voters say things have changed for the better since that time.

The nonpartisan research organization PRRI conducted the 2016 American Values Survey among a sample of 2,010 Americans between September 1 and 27, 2016. The seventh annual American Values Survey focuses on Americans’ concerns about public safety and security, confidence in the electoral system, views about political correctness, support for a rule-breaking leader, and the public’s growing alienation from both political parties. The survey also gauges the importance of such key election issues as trade and immigration.

Better or Worse than the 1950s?

Few ideas are more divisive among the public than whether American culture and way of life have changed for worse (51 percent) or better (48 percent) since the 1950s. This question divides Americans along every major fault line: Race, ethnicity, religion, social class, and political affiliation.

“This election has become a referendum on competing visions of America’s future,” said PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones. “Donald Trump supporters are nostalgic for the 1950s, an era when white Christians in particular had more political and cultural power in the country, while Hillary Clinton supporters are leaning into—and even celebrating—the big cultural transformations the country has experienced over the last few decades.”

No group has a dimmer view of American cultural change than white evangelical Protestants: Nearly three-quarters (74 percent) say American culture has changed for the worse since the 1950s.

Distrust in Electoral Process, Dissatisfaction with Parties and Candidates

Fewer than half (43 percent) of the public say they have a great deal of confidence that their vote will be counted accurately. Roughly four in ten (38 percent) Americans report having only some confidence, while close to one in five (17 percent) say they have hardly any confidence their vote will be accurately counted. Democrats are more likely than Republicans and independents to report a high degree of confidence in the voting system (55 percent vs. 44 percent and 35 percent, respectively). There are stark differences among likely voters, with 70 percent of Clinton supporters but only 41 percent of Trump supporters, reporting a great deal of confidence their votes will be counted accurately.

Americans are almost evenly divided over what constitutes the more significant problem with U.S. elections today: People casting votes who are not eligible (37 percent) or eligible voters being denied the right to vote (41 percent). Roughly two-thirds (66 percent) of Republicans believe voter fraud is a bigger problem than voter disenfranchisement, while a similar number of Democrats (62 percent) say eligible voters being denied access is the bigger problem facing the election system.

More Americans today say their views are not well represented by either major political party. Sixty-one percent say they feel that neither party represents their views, compared to fewer than half (48 percent) who expressed this view in 1990.

The two party’s candidates don’t fare much better: Fewer than half of the public view either candidate positively. Forty-one percent of Americans have a favorable view of Clinton while 33 percent have a favorable opinion of Trump. Across eight specific candidate qualities, Clinton generally comes out ahead of Trump. While Americans are almost evenly divided on who is more honest and who is a stronger and more decisive leader, Clinton fares significantly better than Trump on attributes such as having the right temperament and personality, having the right background and experience, or using military power responsibly.

Politically and Socially Polarized

There is a substantial degree of political segregation among the public. Three-quarters of black Americans (75 percent) and a majority of Hispanic Americans (56 percent) report having no close friend or family member who is supporting Trump, compared to only 24 percent of white Americans. Nearly half (46 percent) of white working-class Americans report that they do not have a single person among their immediate family and friends who is supporting Clinton, while only 22 percent of white college-educated Americans say the same.

 Authoritarianism, Political Correctness, and Women in Public Office

Nearly half the public (46 percent), including 55 percent of Republicans but only 42 percent of Democrats, believe the country needs a leader who is willing to break some rules in order to set things right.

Nearly six in ten Americans (57 percent) say it is important to speak frankly about sensitive issues and problems facing the country even if certain people are offended, while about four in ten (39 percent) say it is important to avoid using language that is hurtful and offensive to some people when discussing sensitive issues. White men (69 percent) are particularly likely to emphasize the importance of speaking frankly about sensitive topics even at the risk of offending others.

Most Americans (58 percent) say the country would be better off if more women served in public office, but there are stark party divides. Democrats are more than twice as likely as Republicans to say the U.S. would benefit from more female leadership (77 percent vs. 37 percent, respectively).

Campaign Issues

  •  Terrorism. No issue is more important to Americans today than terrorism, with seven in ten (70 percent) Americans, including 83 percent of Republicans and 65 percent of Democrats, saying it is a critical issue to them personally.
  • Free trade. Americans are closely divided over the benefits of free trade, with 43 percent saying free trade agreements are mostly helpful because they open markets for U.S. companies and allow Americans to buy goods more cheaply, and 50 percent saying they’re mostly harmful because they send jobs overseas and drive down American wages. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say free trade is harmful.
  • Manufacturing in the U.S. Most Americans (57 percent) say the decline in American manufacturing jobs was mostly caused by government policies and poorly negotiated trade deals, while only 37 percent blame globalization and technological advances.
  • Building a wall. Most (58 percent) oppose building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, while 41 percent are in favor. Republicans are more than three times as likely as Democrats to favor this policy (73 percent vs. 19 percent, respectively).
  • Fairness in the criminal justice system. A majority of Americans (52 percent) agree police officers generally treat nonwhite and white Americans the same. This represents an 11-point increase from 2015, when only 41 percent of the public said police officers treat nonwhite and white people the same. There are stark racial and ethnic divides on this issue: Roughly eight in ten (79 percent) black Americans and more than six in ten (62 percent) Hispanic Americans reject the idea that police officers treat everyone the same. In stark contrast, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) of white Americans, including strong majorities of white working-class (66 percent) and white college-educated Americans (59 percent), agree police officers are generally evenhanded in their treatment of nonwhite and white Americans.

The 2016 American Values Survey vote preference question was fielded in two waves. The first wave, with a field period of September 1-27, found Hillary Clinton leading Donald Trump by eight percentage points among likely voters (49 percent vs. 41 percent, respectively). The second wave, with a field period of October 12-17, found Clinton increasing her lead over Trump into double digits among likely voters (51 percent vs. 36 percent, respectively).

The topline questionnaire, full methodology, and additional findings and analysis can be found here: https://www.prri.org/research/divide-americas-future-1950-2050/.


The survey was designed and conducted by PRRI. The survey was made possible by generous grants from the Ford Foundation and the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Interviews were conducted among a random sample of 2,010 adults (age 18 and up) living in the United States, including all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Interviews were conducted both online using a self-administered design and by telephone. All interviews were conducted among participants in AmeriSpeak, a probability-based panel designed to be representative of the national U.S. adult population run by NORC at the University of Chicago. Panel participants without internet access, which included 290 respondents, were interviewed via telephone by professional interviewers under the direction of NORC. Interviewing was conducted in both Spanish and English between September 1 and September 27, 2016. The margin of error for the survey is +/- 2.8 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence. The design effect for the survey is 1.7.

PRRI is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, nonpartisan organization specializing in research at the intersection of religion, values, and public life.