This New York Times headline captures an important inflection point in the current political campaign: "G.O.P. Redoubles Efforts to Tie Democrats to High Crime Rates."
With less than six weeks left before the midterm elections, battle lines are drawn. Democrats are emphasizing two words: abortion and Trump. Republicans counter with two words of their own: inflation and crime. Three of those themes have dominated the debate for months. What's new is the GOP's ferocious focus on law and order, and the latest ABC/Washington Post poll reveals why. Voters favor Republicans to handle that issue by a massive 22 points.
"Crime is the sleeper issue of this cycle," Chris Hartline, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told the Post. GOP pollster Robert Blizzard added in Politico, "Any time you mention crime or public safety, the advantage for Republicans is significant every time." Democrats reluctantly agree. Crime "is an issue where Republicans are on offense almost everywhere," admits Zac McCrary, a Democratic strategist.
The GOP calculation is clear: Emphasizing public safety shifts attention away from abortion and Trump, two issues that have been working well for Democrats. In that ABC/Post survey, 64% oppose the Supreme Court's Dobbs decision, which canceled abortion rights and energized voters to register as Democrats, especially younger women.
Trump is also a liability for many GOP candidates, since slightly more than half of all voters say he should be charged with a crime for filching classified documents or encouraging violence at the U.S. Capitol. Almost half of all Republicans don't want him to run for president again.
Inflation is still a good issue for the GOP, with 3 out of 4 Americans saying the economy remains in poor shape. But crime adds a popular and explosive component to the GOP arsenal, with 4 of 5 voters telling Gallup they're concerned about the issue.
"During the first three weeks of September, the Republican candidates and allies aired about 53,000 commercials on crime, according to AdImpact, which tracks political spots on network TV," reports the Post. "That's up from the 29,000 crime ads they aired in all of August."
Trump has been following a similar strategy, telling a recent rally: "Right here in Ohio, our once-great cities are now scenes of horror riddled with bullet holes and soaked in blood."
For Republicans, this is a golden oldie. In 1968, with antiwar protesters flooding the streets, candidate Richard Nixon decried, "As we look at America, we see cities enveloped in smoke and flame. We hear sirens in the night. We see Americans dying ..." He added on CBS' "Face the Nation," "As far as this problem of law and order is concerned, I am for law and order."
Republican employment of this issue reached an apex in 1988, when George H.W. Bush ran a TV ad linking his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, to Willie Horton, a Black criminal who raped a white woman while temporarily released from prison.
Bill Keller, who ran The Marshall Project, a think tank focused on criminal justice issues, states: "The Willie Horton ad had implications that stretched far beyond the 1988 campaign season — it ultimately pushed a button of fear that marked the beginning of a 'tough on crime' era, the consequences of which we are still grappling with today."
Take just one example: Wisconsin, where the state's Black lieutenant governor, Mandela Barnes, is running to unseat Sen. Ron Johnson. One Johnson ad shows Barnes' face on a wall with his last name sprayed in graffiti-style script, and another labels him "dangerously liberal on crime."
"This is Willie Horton 2.0," Cornell Belcher, a Democratic strategist, said in the Post. And he's correct. The Republican campaign is streaked with racism, a blatant attempt to exploit white anxiety about dark-skinned felons, but that's not quite the whole story.
Liberals who embraced the "defund the police" slogan in the wake of George Floyd's murder in 2020 made a grave political mistake. For many Americans, crime is a real and valid concern. And they want a larger police presence in their neighborhoods — not smaller.
Voters in San Francisco, of all places, decided last June to recall District Attorney Chesa Boudin because they considered him too soft on criminals. And voters in Black neighborhoods of Minneapolis opposed a measure to reduce police funding.
Of course, Republicans are cynically weaponizing the crime issue to play on racial fears and phobias. But the liberals who screamed "defund the police" loaded the gun for them and handed it over.
Steven Roberts teaches politics and journalism at George Washington University. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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