According to a new survey from PRRI and The Atlantic, we can describe one way in which voters in 2016 felt this was the most important election in history. Forty-one percent of respondents — including two-thirds of those who voted for Donald Trump — felt that the 2016 election was critical because it was our last chance to "stop America's decline."
The fraction of Hillary Clinton voters who agreed with that sentiment was much smaller, at only a fifth.
Trump himself positioned this election as a final opportunity for his party, at one point telling the Christian Broadcasting Network's David Brody that 2016 was "the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning" -- in part thanks to shifting demographics. The idea of decline clearly also overlaps with the motto embroidered into his hats. America was once great; it no longer is; Trump will reverse that. The decline will stop.
Responses to the question also correlate to age and economic status. Older Americans were more likely to agree with the sentiment, as were members of the white working class.
This is unsurprising in part because those are also voters who broadly supported Trump. Which raises the chicken-and-egg component that always lingers around questions like this. Did those voters feel like this was the last chance to halt the country's decline and therefore voted for Trump? Or did they prefer Trump and therefore embrace his rhetoric?
PRRI and The Atlantic asked some questions which get a bit deeper into the "why" of the decline. What is it that has changed?
In one question, the researchers asked if people thought that things had changed so much they now felt like strangers in their own country. Trump voters were slightly more likely to agree with that point.
They also asked if efforts to increase diversity usually comes at the expense of white Americans. The overlap of Trump support and racial tension has been well documented, suggesting that this question might get at the question of decline.
The poll found that Trump voters were significantly more likely to say that they agreed than were Clinton voters.
Half of Trump voters agreed with each sentiment. But, then, half didn't.
The net result of the election is that those voters who were worried about the decline of the United States are now among the most optimistic about the next four years. About 28 percent of Americans think the quality of life in their local communities will improve under Trump — but more than half of members of the white working class who voted for Trump think that it will. (Overall, most people think things will stay about the same.) In other words, for now at least, Trump's core base of support felt that this was an unusually important election — and that the results stopped what they perceived as the worst-case scenario.