Crime in presidential politics

The Gallup Organization’s website said on Sunday that “Crime is unlikely to be a high-profile issue in 2008.” In the wake of Monday’s violent shootings in Virginia, that previously justifiable conclusion about the issues of presidential-year politics may need revision. It’s an eventuality that Gallup may have even seen coming. The campus murders didn’t occur in a vacuum. Crime has been creeping back into the public consciousness for the past year or so, a fact that Gallup acknowledged in the same discussion that discounted the issue’s relevance for 2008. The nation’s most visible pollsters observed that “over the last two years, Americans have become more pessimistic about the level of crime in the United States.”

We know a lot about the fear of crime from academic studies conducted in the 1980s and 1990s. Public anxieties about crime are not necessarily consistent with rational or objective evaluations of the actual threat. Increases or decreases in so-called “index crimes” like murder are not necessarily tracked by commensurate shifts in public opinion. Instead, high-profile crimes surrounded by intense media coverage create profound public obsession over crime and violence. One scholarly study of a 1994 spike in identification of crime as the “most important problem” concluded that TV news accounted for “almost four times more variance in public perceptions of crime … than did actual crime rates.” That’s why Monday’s events and the ensuing media coverage are so important.

That mid-1990s spike in worries about crime eventually turned into a trend, and the issue ruled “most important problem” lists. But then it mysteriously abated. In an April Gallup Poll, just 2 percent of Americans told interviewers that crime or violence is the most important problem “facing the country today.” Off-setting this bizarrely low salience of crime, Gallup reports separately, “A majority of Americans, 56 percent, view crime as at least a ‘very serious problem’ in the United States, up slightly from previous years.”

Gallup’s mixed portrayal of Americans’ views toward crime is confirmed by local poll results. Some local surveys show issues like traffic, growth, and economic development besting crime in the battle for top issue. But other studies place crime, public safety and security at the apex of the issue agenda. Two top mayoral races currently underway are being dominated by crime. In Philadelphia, a Keystone Poll found that 72 percent of likely mayoral primary voters identified crime as the most important issue. In Dallas, a poll for the Dallas Morning News found that crime was fingered as the most important issue facing that city, garnering twice the attention of the second-place issue, economic development. Dallas voters are demanding that candidates lay out crime-fighting strategies.

While the experiences of Philly and Dallas are not universal by any means, there are enough similar communities to justify the conclusion that crime is growing in its salience to many voters. And events like those that occurred in Blacksburg just add fuel to that smoldering fire. It may burst forth soon in a full wildfire of public fury.

The implications for presidential politics will be significant. Crime’s ascendance will benefit Republicans with military (John McCain) or crime fighting (Rudy Giuliani) backgrounds. Even thespian prosecutors like Fred Thompson will become more desirable. Meanwhile, candidates with no crime-fighting or security credentials — including top Democrats Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama — can’t welcome this turn in events. For the Democrats, it’s a particularly messy issue. Their primary voters will demand lots of gun-control and social-nurturing responses to a ramp-up in crime. Meanwhile, November’s swing voters will be looking for firm, tough responses to violence. Clinton and Obama will be caught in the middle.

Hill is director of Hill Research Consultants, a Texas-based firm that has polled for GOP candidates and causes since 1988.

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