In the final weeks of the midterms, ads for Democratic candidates are focused on abortion rights as the issue they want to drive home to voters. Republicans, on the other hand, insist there’s a nationwide “crime crisis,” as the Republican National Committee has dubbed it. It’s an easy well to dip into — and it looks like the constant barrage of warnings that neighborhoods are no longer safe is having an effect.
A Gallup Poll released Friday morning found that 56% of Americans think crime has increased in their local area over the last year, the most in 50 years. But as I’ve said before, there’s often a disconnect between the perception of increased crime in an area and whether that purported increase can accurately be measured. That goes double for a climate like today’s, where the GOP is determined to frame cities as liberal-created hellscapes.
There’s often a disconnect between the perception of increased crime in an area and whether that purported increase can accurately be measured.
Gallup noted that “Americans have consistently been more likely to say crime is worsening in the U.S. than in their local area,” and that held true in its latest findings: 78% of respondents think that crime is up nationwide compared to 2021, versus the 56% who believe crime is up where they live. In other words, people are more likely to think that rising crime is a problem somewhere else than it is in their own community.
Small wonder when the GOP is spending so heavily on hammering home that message. “Since July 1, the National Republican Congressional Committee has run at least $4 million in general-election ads with police or crime themes, with the House GOP’s main super PAC running $12.1 million over that period,” Politico reported this week, using data from nonpartisan research firm AdImpact.
And, surprise surprise, it’s Republicans who are most convinced in Gallup’s polling that crime is coming for us all. “Currently, 73% of Republicans say crime in their area has risen, while 51% of independents and 42% of Democrats say the same,” the polling firm found. That’s a 6-point increase compared to last year, which in turn was a massive leap from the 38% of Republicans who said crime was up when asked in 2020. More impressively, a full 95% of Republicans in this most recent poll believe that crime is up nationally, “the highest ever for any party group,” as Gallup put it.
But that belief doesn’t square with what we know so far this year about crime across the nation — which admittedly is not a lot. Crime statistics are not collected uniformly nationwide, leaving us with large gaps in our understanding. In the absence of accurate and current data, we’re left with anecdotes or perceptions, as Gallup has measured.
One useful source is the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics, which last month released its 2021 data on criminal victimization nationwide. When it comes to “violent victimization” — aka people who are the victims of violent crimes like rape, robbery and aggravated assault, but not murder — it found that the estimated rate had declined from 2012 through last year and that the rate “did not change” between 2020 and 2021. As for property crimes, the rate also had not significantly increased from the previous year.
Now, we know that voters in rural counties tend to lean Republican and those in urban counties tilt toward Democrats. But even though Republicans are convinced crime is up in their area, looking at the DOJ’s statistics, the violent victimization rate remained “unchanged in suburban or rural areas” between 2020 and 2021. And while crime has risen in some cities, stats like the murder rate and gun violence are actually down in other cities like New York City — and, importantly, are still nowhere near the peaks we saw in the 1990s. Despite that, the national crime crisis is often framed as a majorly urban one that is leaking out into the suburbs.
Republicans have invested a lot of time and money into priming the country to believe that Democrats have heralded in a new era of lawlessness
What is up though is how much voters are seeing crime highlighted on their TVs, especially in the window that Gallup measured. In addition to Republican ad buys, The Washington Post’s Philip Bump this week found that there’s been a massive spike since September of mentions of crime on Fox News. And as more politicians have begun talking about crime on the campaign trail since then, other networks — including this one — have followed suit in their coverage, though not to nearly as sharp a degree.
“There remains no actual evidence that something changed in late September to warrant a new increase in the attention being paid to crime by Fox News,” Bump wrote. “But we do know that the GOP sees a narrative about crime as useful, that Fox News discussion of the subject has increased steadily as the midterms have approached and that the network is otherwise fairly explicit in letting its programming directly benefit the Republican Party.”
This is an only slightly less dangerous version of former President Donald Trump’s election denialism cycle in 2020: Say that there’s a problem without real evidence, then use the fact that people think there is a problem as proof that a problem exists. Republicans have invested a lot of time and money into priming the country to believe that Democrats have heralded in a new era of lawlessness and only the GOP’s mass incarceration plans can keep people safe. Gallup’s poll shows Republicans are getting a very solid return on that investment.