Has a focus on crime helped the GOP seal a midterms victory?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

In the lead-up to the midterms, Republican candidates have focused heavily on crime as part of their final pitch to voters — pumping millions of dollars into ads aimed at portraying their Democratic opponents as “soft on crime.” That strategy appears to have worked. Polls suggest that Democrats’ chances of holding on to control in Congress, which seemed to be improving over the course of the summer, have dipped in recent weeks.

The economy, specifically inflation, continues to be the top issue for voters. But the percentage of Americans who say crime is “very important” has gone up over the past few months, with a particularly notable increase among independents who may decide key races across the country, according to a Yahoo News/YouGov survey released last month. That change in voter sentiment has coincided with a major spike in the discussion of crime in conservative media and a barrage of negative ads from Republicans claiming that Democrats’ liberal policies have caused a deadly spike in crime across the country.

The real picture of crime in the U.S. is far more complicated. After declining steadily for decades, murders increased significantly in 2020 at the height of the coronavirus pandemic. But the most recent data suggests that trend slowed substantially in 2021 and has reversed slightly so far this year. Changes in the way the FBI collects crime statistics, however, make it difficult to know how representative those numbers really are.

Looking at statistics from a national view also obscures differences in crime rates at the local level — some of which run directly counter to the GOP’s claims about the dangers of Democratic leadership. The states with the highest murder rates in the nation, for example, include many conservative bastions. Republican attacks also tend to mischaracterize Democrats’ positions on crime. Though generally more open to reform than the GOP, very few Democratic candidates actively support radical changes like defunding the police.

Why there’s debate

Political analysts from both sides of the aisle say Democrats have made strategic errors that have made them particularly vulnerable to GOP attacks. Chief among them, many argue, is the movement to “defund the police.” Though it was promoted only by a small number of progressive Democrats, the party hasn’t been able to shake the claim that it’s not committed to law enforcement. Other experts say crime is a tough issue for Democrats because the party itself is deeply divided over the best approach to public safety, whereas the GOP is firmly unified behind “tough on crime” policies.

Some pundits on the left say mainstream Democrats have invited these struggles by rejecting any vision of public safety that doesn’t center around the police. They argue that, by refusing to consider true reforms, the party is turning away younger voters who are desperate for change and choosing to battle Republicans on their home turf.

Political experts largely agree that voters don’t consider statistics when they think about crime. Instead, they look at their own lives and consider whether they personally feel less safe. They believe that in periods where crime is rising, voters are primed to gravitate toward candidates who make them feel validated for being concerned, rather than those who try to tell them the problem isn’t as bad as they think.

What’s next

Voters head to the polls on Nov. 8, and they will deliver a verdict on the two parties’ messaging across the issues.


Calls to defund the police have caused lasting damage to voters’ trust in Democrats

“In my many years in politics, I have never seen a more destructive slogan than ‘defund the police.’ … This election season, I can’t find any Democrats – actual Democratic candidates – running on that nonsense. The overwhelming majority of Americans – including most Black Americans and most Democrats – oppose defunding police. Still, the political damage from that slogan has been real.” — Paul Begala, CNN

Crime is one of many issues on which voters are rejecting Democratic leadership

“Chaos is bad for the party in power. Inflation is a form of social chaos, as are the unchecked border and violent crime. They didn’t fall from the sky. The first two are attributable to policy decisions by Mr. Biden and the Beltway Democrats, the latter to elected Democrats across the country. Most voters, especially the independents trending rightward, don’t like chaos.” — Daniel Henniger, Wall Street Journal

Worthwhile alternatives to the “tough on crime” approach don’t make for good campaign sound bites

“There is a parallel case that good crime policy at the state and federal level is inseparable from education investments, safety-net supports and housing programs that could help break up concentrated poverty and despair. … But these interconnected benefits play out over years, not immediately in the midst of a crime surge. And this is not the conversation about crime that’s happening in 30-second campaign ads and on debate stages with an election around the corner.” — Emily Badger, New York Times

Democrats’ reform plans offer nothing to people worried about crime today

“A functioning justice system should be swift, certain and fair. Democrats who seem concerned only with fairness are trying to balance on a one-legged stool. Elected officials committed to increased social investments to preclude tomorrow’s crimes need to offer a credible plan to people fearful of becoming today’s victims.” — Harry Siegel, Daily News

Talk of crime can tap into racist attitudes that aren’t usually discussed in the open

“Fearmongering about crime is a clever old tactic that plays on America’s inherent anti-Blackness and racialized fears.” — Kandist Mallett, Teen Vogue

Democrats have been too timid to defend their own policies

“Democrats have the choice of trying to defend their ideas or to rule out any pointed discussion of them. It tells you all you need to know that they are heavily invested in the latter.” — Rich Lowry, Boston Herald

It doesn’t matter what the data says when people are scared in their own lives

“Dems will ask you: Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes? They’re guilty of the worst kind of obfuscation and double-speak. And they don’t seem to realize and fewer and fewer people out there are buying it. The Dems should remember that the first step to fixing a problem is admitting that you have a problem.” — Tom Wrobleski , SI Live

Voters are discontent with Democrats on a whole range of issues

“Inflation, an unpopular Democratic president, and economic jitters are the backdrop of Republicans’ pickups. Crime is the scary ad material to close the deal.” — Jim Newell, Slate

In their push for social justice, Democrats lost sight of public safety

“The battle to defeat Trump’s race war … blinded many from seeing the priorities and needs of working-class African American, Hispanic, and Asian American voters. Those were the voters who pulled back from their historic support for Democrats. To be honest, many assumed that battling long-standing racial inequities would be their top priority. But that assumption becomes indefensibly elitist when it turns out these voters were much more focused on the economy, corporate power, and crime.” — Stanley B. Greenberg, American Prospect

Democrats haven’t given voters an alternative vision for public safety

“When ['tough on crime' is] the only option on offer, it's what people go to because, in the absence of a proactive affirmative vision for safety, you pick the thing that you know, even if you know it doesn't really work.” — Insha Rahman, criminal justice reform advocate, to NPR

The GOP is united on crime, Democrats are divided

“This current crime wave was likely caused by the pandemic. Yet it’s the pandemic-denial party that’s flogging it, while strangely the party that took the pandemic seriously is now the one out of touch with reality. Democrats are obviously conflicted — about the role of police, about GOP demagoguery of urban areas, about acknowledging that something’s gone wrong on their turf.” — Danny Westneat, Seattle Times

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images