Where crime really matters in the 2022 midterms

The images from the mass shooting on New York’s subway last week were jarring: Smoke in the air, blood on the tiles, and above ground, a massive manhunt underway.

So were Gov. Kathy Hochul’s words at a news conference that linked the shooting with the perception that the city and many others are being overrun with crime. “We are sick and tired of reading headlines about crime,” she said. “It has to stop.”

The last year’s increase in violent crime is a challenge dominating many conversations about Democratic governance. Property crime rates vary by city and have generally been trending down, but in 2021, violent crime, including assaults and murders, was up 44 percent from 2019, and up 5 percent from 2020. In that first pandemic year, homicides soared by a record amount, though murder rates still remain lower than they were in the 1990s, according to the Council on Criminal Justice.

Because of where that crime is happening most — urban areas — the issue is likely to have a much greater impact on the electoral fortunes of those governing at the state and local levels than on those running for Congress. The toughest political fights over crime in the coming months may unfold between Democrats facing Democratic electorates and primary challengers.

In cities and states big and small, Democrats have moderated their tone on policing and veered into “tough on crime” discourse usually deployed by Republicans. They’ve also halted or reversed many of the progressive changes activists had spent the last decade calling for: New York state restricted its 2019 bail reform with new rules; Minneapolis funneled more money to its police department after cuts in 2020; Chicago wants to change its suspect monitoring program; Philadelphia and Los Angeles are debating how much to grow their police forces.

As right-wing critics attack the party in power and the general public wonders why their cities have become more violent, moderate Democrats are turning on the left, activists are worrying about premature rollbacks of more progressive justice reforms, and pundits and politicians alike are warning that insecurity might cost Democrats votes.

These dynamics — increasing crime, a worsening perception of public safety, incumbency, and the time it takes for reforms to take effect — all pose challenges for Democrats running for office this year. But crime likely won’t be the major midterm issue for all Democrats, especially those in Congress, and though an easy scapegoat, it likely won’t be the matter that determines Democratic success at the national level.

As political issues, crime and public safety carry a heavier cost in local elections, where policy is made and the voters most affected by and worried about crime are concentrated. The progressive-moderate tension within the Democratic Party is also more pronounced on this issue because many debates on policing and public safety are happening in municipalities dominated by Democrats. With growing discontent with Democratic governance in general, crime might just be one of a laundry list of Republican attacks, and not the decisive issue for control of Congress that many doomsayers are claiming it will be.

As inflation, gas prices, rising interest rates, and housing affordability all sour the national mood, “it makes me believe it’s even less likely now that crime is going to be featured centrally in a lot of campaigns, because of how effectively Republicans are going to be able to use the inflation issue against Biden and Democratic members of Congress,” Dan Cox, the director of the Survey Center on American Life and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told me.

Americans also have a warped understanding of how bad crime is, tending to think crime is up when, historically, data shows it is trending down. Gallup surveys over the last three decades have consistently shown a gap between how much Americans think crime is worsening around the country compared to around them. That gap was highest (with Americans thinking the country is more unsafe than their neighborhood) in 2020, though it shrunk last year, with more Americans thinking crime is now worse around them.

But that perception might not translate into major shifts in party support, like it favored Republicans in the 1970s and ’80s. Though in 2020, Democrats in competitive House races pinned losses on the progressive rallying cry to “defund the police,” crime tends to be more of a motivator for conservative base voters. Swing voters don’t tend to live in cities and inner-ring suburbs where crime is a bigger problem. That geographic sorting leaves Democrats to fight among themselves — and face backlash from Democratic voters.

Yes, crime is a problem that has worsened

The days of debating whether the country is experiencing a crime wave are over. While the last year provided shocking headlines about shoplifting run amok, violent acts of racism in major cities, and gun violence not seen in years, the numbers since 2019 do indicate that violent crime has steadily been rising.

Homicide rates spiked in 2020, the Council on Criminal Justice concluded in a report released this year, mirroring rises in aggravated assaults (up 4 percent) and gun assaults (eight percent) around the country as well. The FBI also reported the largest spike of murders since the 1960s, from 2019 to 2020 — and violent crime has been trending upward in cities like Washington (up 28 percent since 2021), New York (major crime up 41 percent in the first three months of the year), Seattle (up 20 percent in 2021), and Denver (up 11 percent since 2021).

Republicans have seized on these trends to step up their attacks on Democrats as being weak on crime, and have returned to the popular “defund the police” protest slogan as a cudgel, just as they used it during the 2020 elections. For many candidates now running for reelection or carving out support in primary races, the easiest defense is to rush to the center and fall in line behind President Joe Biden’s State of the Union message on crime, “not to defund the police [but] to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.”

But reality works against Biden: There’s actually little he or his administration can do about local crime rates. Last summer, after the release of FBI statistics confirming the public’s fear of increasing crime and a Republican campaign to pin the rise in crime on progressive Democratic reforms, the White House announced new efforts to try to combat gun violence specifically.

At the time, Biden’s action seemed like a desperate response to a problem no one understood: “Joe Biden knows he needs to appear to be doing something about crime,” the Atlantic’s David A. Graham wrote, “[but] the problem, for Biden, is that there’s simply not much the federal government can do: The fastest initiatives seem unlikely to have much effect, while others have more potential but are unlikely to come to fruition soon.”

Flash forward to this month, when the White House heralded new efforts to regulate “ghost guns” (firearms assembled and purchased in a piecemeal fashion, making them untraceable) a day before New York’s subway mass shooting, and the limits of rapid policy changes become more apparent. The quickest actions on incarceration, policing, gun regulation, and arrests tend to yield the least-durable changes on deeper, institutional problems — time that Democrats facing anxious electorates in a midterm year don’t necessarily have.

That tension is playing out in elections up and down the ballot, in red and blue states, and prompting Democrats with the most liberal-voting constituencies to change their stance to appear more credible on public safety.

Local and statewide races are where crime will be a defining factor

The tonal shift in how Democrats talk about crime and policing is more apparent the more local you look, and for good reason: That’s the level where policy is determined, and where voters may redirect most of their anger in punishing incumbents.

The change started among Democrats already in office. In San Francisco last year, Mayor London Breed exemplified this shift, announcing a crackdown on “criminals who are destroying our city”: “It comes to an end when we take the steps to be more aggressive with law enforcement, more aggressive with the changes in our policies and less tolerant of all the bullshit that has destroyed our city.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot of Chicago followed with a speech calling for more federal prosecution in gun crimes and a moratorium on electronic monitoring of violent suspects.

In New York, Eric Adams, three months into a job he won due in large part to his credibility on policing, argued that his tenure as mayor will be judged on crime and safety. After this month’s subway attack, he doubled down, saying he would “continue to do everything in my power to dam the rivers that feed the sea of violence.”

All three have years left in their terms, but fellow Democrats running for reelection, against recalls, and in primaries face a tougher dilemma: winning over voters who have lost faith in their ability to handle public safety, while defending their liberal credentials.

These more local races, like in Los Angeles, Louisville, Milwaukee, and Washington, DC’s mayoral contests or the recall efforts against progressive prosecutors in Los Angeles and San Francisco, are elevating moderate Democrats or forcing progressives to step back from their most bold reforms. An open governor’s race in New York and gubernatorial reelection bids in Colorado and Michigan all demonstrate how crime and policing have pushed Democrats to reconsider police funding and criminal justice reforms, campaign as tough on crime, and steadily abandon the most progressive pitches activists had made in 2020.

Candidates for mayor in Los Angeles and Washington, for example, are debating over how much to increase policing funding and staffing — not about how much to cut it down, while New York’s Democrats are pausing a slew of bail reforms after Republican and centrist victories last year.

Public safety has taken a key role in these races so far, matching the steady polling over the last four years showing growing dissatisfaction with crime control and the perception of worsening crime since before the pandemic, according to Gallup.

But that dissatisfaction on public safety won’t hurt all Democrats equally. When looking at congressional races — where candidates can make a lot of noise (think of how progressives campaigned on defunding the police), but not take a lot of action on crime and policing — the economy will likely swamp crime as a midterms issue, experts told Vox.

Polling data from Gallup and Pew over the last few months shows a steady increase in the share of Americans reporting inflation and cost of living to be the most important problem the country faces. In Gallup’s poll, crime ranks toward the bottom, even as Republicans’ concern has increased and Democratic concerns remain steady.

“Inflation just dwarfs everything else,” Cox told me. His organization, the Survey Center on American Life, is reviewing results of their most recent poll asking Americans about their thoughts on various culture war touch points and issues like crime, immigration, and the war in Ukraine ahead of elections. “People are absolutely focused on inflation and concerned about gas costs, housing costs, the cost of everything. That has pretty much taken a lot of the oxygen out of the room for these other issues,” he said.

Cox previously made this argument during the peak of the crime wave debate last year, saying Republicans might not need to make crime an issue when they have a strong enough case to make on the economy. The same might not be true for more localized races, though, and these fights will build as Democratic voters tune into primary contests.

Together, these dueling priorities between slow reform and quick action present a poisoned chalice for the Democrats running in state and local races who had pledged to tackle crime and public safety without resorting to heavy-handed tactics, but now face an exhausted electorate eager to see quick improvements. Whether voters grant them more time to effect change will depend on how deftly these candidates moderate their tone — and get creative with solutions.

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