By MARGOT SANGER-KATZ
Donald Trump’s campaign slogan is “Make America Great Again.” His supporters, it turns out, disagree on when that was.
The slogan evokes a time when America was stronger and more prosperous. But Mr. Trump doesn’t specify whether he’s expressing nostalgia for the 1950s — or 10 years ago. That vagueness is reflected by his voters, according to the results of a new survey, conducted online by the digital media and polling company Morning Consult.
When asked to select America’s greatest year, Trump supporters offered a wide range of answers, with no distinct pattern. The most popular choice was the year 2000. But 1955, 1960, 1970 and 1985 were also popular. More than 2 percent of Trump’s supporters picked 2015, when Mr. Trump’s campaign began.
We asked the Trump campaign to name America’s greatest year, but we haven’t heard back.
Other polls have asked Americans whether they prefer the past to the present. In March, Pew asked people whether life was better for people like them 50 years ago — and a majority of Republicans answered yes. Trump supporters were the most emphatic, with 75 percent saying things were better in the mid-1960s.
Democrats, though, were less enthusiastic about the past. Forty-eight percent said life was better now than it was 50 years ago, while 17 percent of Democrats said it was the same, and only 28 percent said it was worse. Political science research suggests that Americans’ optimism can be influenced by whether their political party is in the White House. So it’s perhaps not surprising that Democrats feel better than Republicans about current circumstances.
In the Morning Consult survey, 44 percent of people over all said America’s greatest years were ahead of it, while 36 percent said those years had already passed. But in an election when America’s past greatness has played such a starring role, we wanted to see more details about just how voters saw the past and the future.
So, when was the greatest year?
Over all, 2000 was the most popular choice, a preference that cut across political party, candidate preference, gender and age. The year’s popularity may partly reflect people’s fondness for round numbers. But many voters explained their choice by referring to a greater sense of security. The Sept. 11 attacks occurred the following year. (An election year also has something for all partisans to grab onto. Bill Clinton was president that year, but George W. Bush won the election to replace him.)
Some people, of course, reached farther back into history. The year the Declaration of Independence was signed, 1776, got a few votes. One person chose 1789, the year the Constitution took effect. One person chose 1800. One chose 1860, the year Southern states began to secede from the Union. But most answers were of a more recent vintage.
There were partisan patterns in views of America’s greatness. Republicans, over all, recall the late 1950s and the mid-1980s most fondly. Sample explanations: “Reagan.” “Economy was booming.” “No wars!” “Life was simpler.” “Strong family values.” The distribution of Trump supporters’ greatest years is somewhat similar to the Republican trend, but more widely dispersed over the last 70 years. Supporters of Ted Cruz picked best years that were similar to the party’s trend over all. The sample of John Kasich supporters in the survey was too small to detect any patterns.
As a group, Democrats seem to think America’s greatest days were more recent; they were more likely to pick a year in the 1990s, or since 2000. After 2000, their second-most-popular answer was 2016. Sample explanations: “We’re getting better.” “Improving social justice.” “Technology.” Even 2008, a year of financial collapse, was pretty popular, perhaps because President Obama was also elected that year. The pattern for supporters of Bernie Sanders was a little different from that of Hillary Clinton supporters: The main difference is that Mr. Sanders’s voters were more likely to pick a year from the 1960s, and more of the Clinton supporters chose best years in the 1990s, when her husband was president.
The Morning Consult survey was conducted with help of Lucid, a survey technology firm, over two days last week. The survey, conducted online, consisted of 2,003 interviews with registered voters.