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How urban crime could hobble Democrats in the midterms

The midterm elections are mere weeks away, and the Democrat Party is vulnerable on crime.

With summer officially in the rear view, and the chill of fall in the air, the next several weeks will see Americans focused on two sports: baseball and politics. Let’s turn our attention to the latter. The midterm elections are mere weeks away, and recent polling seems to suggest that the Democrat Party is particularly vulnerable on an issue that consistently registers as high on the list of voters’ priorities—crime.

A recent New York Times/Siena poll showed that 47 percent of registered voters and 49 percent of registered independents agreed more with Republicans on crime and policing, compared to just 37 percent of registered voters and 31 percent of independents who said they agreed more with Democrats. A recent ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Republicans enjoying a 14-point advantage over Democrats on the issue of crime.

Why might this be?

For one thing, serious violent crime and public disorder are much bigger problems in the urban enclaves of major metro areas (those with populations over 1M), which lean heavily Democrat. In more than thirty cities, homicides reached levels not seen since the 1990s in either 2020 or 2021; and the most recent National Crime Victimization Survey released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics showed that "from 2020 to 2021, the violent victimization rate increased from 19.0 to 24.5 victimizations per 1,000 persons in urban areas while remaining unchanged in suburban or rural areas." In other words, crime is getting particularly bad in many of the cities where Democrats have been politically dominant in recent years.

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For another, the Democrats have spent well over a decade making "criminal justice reform"—which often takes the form of policies aimed at reducing incarceration and placing new limits on the powers of law enforcement—a central plank of the party’s brand. Indeed, in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election, speaking out against, and committing to addressing, "mass incarceration" quickly became a litmus test for Democratic Party hopefuls. 

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On the campaign trail, Joe Biden committed to cutting America’s incarceration rate by at least 50 percent. And, of course, in the wake of George Floyd’s murder in May of 2020, a number of prominent Democrats, as well as Democrat-heavy city councils supported calls to defund the police, while well over 140 reforms were passed across the country over the following year.

It's going to be difficult for Democrats to convince voters that these things are unrelated.

Shortly after the results of the NYT/Siena poll were published, the Times published a piece suggesting that at least some Republicans whose campaign ads have pressed the issue in the lead-up to the November elections are "appeal[ing] to racist fears." In the Washington Post, a piece from last week noted that Republican messaging on crime is "drawing growing accusations from Democrats that they are engaging in a pattern of stoking racial divisions..." Both pieces also noted Democrat Party counter-messaging efforts, as well as recent legislative overtures, such as a recent police funding proposal passed in the House.

But it’s not racist for voters to worry about their safety—particularly at a time in which cities across the country have seen their violent crime numbers skyrocket in recent years. Nor is it "racially divisive" (to take another phrase from the Times piece) for Republicans to home in on those genuine concerns when crafting their message to voters this fall. And, if Democrats are serious about distancing themselves from the "soft-on-crime" label (whether it’s fairly applied or not), it’s probably going to take more than name-calling and symbolic votes. 

It’s going to take something that many Democrats still don’t seem eager to go for at the moment: a genuine party-wide commitment to the idea that police, prosecutors, and prisons will have to play central roles in any crime control effort with a shot of succeeding. While many voters, perhaps understandably, seem to see such a commitment as incongruous with the current Democrat Party’s brand, it’s worth remembering that it once was central to it—and not that long ago. The good news? It can be once again.

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