Americans have noticed. A Gallup poll released in November 2020 found that 78 percent of Americans thought that the national crime rate was higher than the year before — the highest that number has been since 1993, when it was 87 percent. More recently, an October report from the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans said violent crime was “a very big problem” in the U.S. today — a 20-percentage-point jump from roughly a year earlier.
But despite polls showing that Americans are increasingly worried about crime, there are a few reasons to believe that it may not be a large issue in the midterm elections next year. The biggest of which is that crime doesn’t offer a clear advantage to either political party.
Past scholarship has found that political parties have built-in advantages on certain issues. And historically, the public has expressed greater confidence in the GOP’s handling of the issue of crime. For instance, a 1985 ABC News/The Washington Post poll found that Republicans had a nearly 20-point advantage over Democrats on the issue. But there’s evidence that former President Clinton’s rhetoric and policies diminished the GOP’s advantage, leaving the two parties pretty evenly matched — a balance that has maintained to this day. Case in point: A June poll from ABC News/The Washington Post showed almost no difference in which party Americans trusted more to handle crime (35 percent for Democrats, 36 for Republicans).
But if there is an opening to make crime a campaign issue, it is probably linked to the “defund the police” movement championed by some progressive activists and local Democratic leaders. Since its popularization during last summer’s protests, the slogan has been controversial and poorly received by the public, even as it captured widespread media attention. In fact, most polling, including my own, finds the public largely opposed to cutting law enforcement budgets. However, despite GOP efforts to cast the idea as a mainstream Democratic proposal, it has garnered very little support from the party establishment. President Biden, for instance, has been clear in his opposition to defunding the police.
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Furthermore, as crime spiked across the country last year, even the elected Democrats who had touted proposals to reallocate law enforcement funding or disband police departments quickly reversed course. For example, more than a year after the Minneapolis City Council pledged to disband the city’s police department, the mayor is now seeking to hire more officers. And earlier this month, voters in Minneapolis decisively rejected a ballot measure that would have replaced the police department with a health-oriented Department of Public Safety. In Oakland and Los Angeles, local lawmakers are also now looking to increase funding for police departments.
As we look ahead to 2022, there’s a good chance the issue will not reemerge. Consider a study by the Voter Study Group that found that immediately after the murder of George Floyd, positive views of the police sank sharply among Democrats. However, over the next six months, Democratic views turned much more positive. And today, Democrats have mostly favorable views of the police.
The uptick in crime might not affect as many people as it once did, either. This past July, in Politico, historian Josh Zeitz suggested that crime resonated as a political issue in the past because its effect was immediately apparent. He said that, in the 1970s, “many working-class and middle-class voters lived in cities or inner-ring suburbs where crime was not a hypothetical concern; it was an everyday reality.” But recent trends in geographic polarization have shown that the places experiencing the greatest surge in crime today — cities and inner suburbs, according to the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life, where I serve as director — are largely Democratic strongholds. In other words, there are simply not that many swing voters living in the areas most affected by rising violence.
Finally, the current political climate may be the most important reason why crime will likely remain on the periphery in 2022. Even if there is an opening for Republicans to exploit the issue, they may decide they don’t need to. The Virginia and New Jersey elections suggest Democrats will be facing strong headwinds in the coming midterm elections, no matter what. For the time being, Biden’s approval is stuck in the low 40s, which is the lowest of his term so far, and the White House’s party typically struggles in off-year elections. The public mood is also grim. The percentage of Americans who believe the country is moving in the wrong direction has surged over the past few months.
Given that we’re not entirely certain what is causing the uptick in crime, it’s hard to predict what things will look like next year. For instance, if crime is being partly driven by the pandemic, then it’s possible — perhaps even likely — that the crime rate could abate as vaccine uptake continues and cases decline. A lot can happen in 12 months, but it’s a good bet that crime won’t be the top issue in 2022.
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