Why the issue of crime didn’t deliver for Republicans in the midterms
While crime was ranked as a key issue in exit polls among voters and one that Republicans leaned on heavily during the midterms, the issue didn’t translate into the kind of wins the party expected on election night.
Still, members of the party credit Republican messaging on crime with helping the party notch several key House races in New York and making other House, Senate and gubernatorial races closer than expected.
At the same time, Republicans say a mix of factors, like the outsized influence of national issues, poor strategy and voter geography, influenced why the issue of crime didn’t resonate with voters as well as they’d hoped. They also say multiple issues at play can make understanding midterm dynamics especially tricky.
“The issue of crime is — it’s like a supporting cast member. So you need to have it in your issue set, and you need to connect the importance of public safety and crime into the number one issue, which is the economy. I don’t think that Republicans effectively made that argument,” said GOP strategist John Thomas.
Thomas said campaigns could’ve created “connective tissue” messaging that linked crime with topics on voters’ minds, for instance arguing that the economy would be impacted if business owners couldn’t ensure the safety of their businesses.
“I rarely saw what we were just discussing where candidates for Congress were tethering the top issue sets together and explaining why everything is an economic issue, whether it’s crime, or education or inflation,” Thomas said, speaking about House races specifically. “I think by and large Republicans missed the mark, both at an individual candidate level, and … I never saw any of those arguments coming from leadership at the national level.”
Other Republicans argue that the issue of crime was an important one for their party to focus on, but that it was drowned out by other conversations, including abortion access and former President Trump.
“When you’re talking about House races and gubernatorial races, I think they got caught up in the same federal spin a senator would have,” said one GOP strategist who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “And so I think that’s where, in a lot of these challenging congressional districts or even in a gubernatorial race that would have had more merit to the crime discussion and debate … I’d still think it got lost in the shuffle of Trump and abortion.”
“The same with House races, even if you’re in a House district with a big suburban block on the edges of a large metropolitan city where crime is a real meaningful issue there, I think the issue got put into second gear, again, because the … national dialogue and debate and the animosity and vigor of that debate overshadowed crime when people showed up at the polls,” the strategist added.
Exit polls show that crime, though not seen as the top issue generally, was still seen as a top-tier issue. Exit polling from Edison Research and published by Reuters showed that crime ranked third among both Republicans and Democrats when voters were asked which of five issues they were offered to choose from mattered the most to them in deciding how they voted.
But the issue of crime is complicated, as data and perception tell complex stories. Just take for instance a bulletin from the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Statistics published in September showing that the rate of violent victimization — which includes simple assault, aggravated assault, rape or sexual assault and robbery — has fallen both between 1993 and 2021 and between 2012 and 2021 alone.
Between 1993 and 2021, the Bureau of Justice Statistics bulletin, which includes data taken from a self-reported survey called the National Crime Victimization Survey, found that that rate of violent victimizations fell from 79.8 victimizations per 1,000 people at least 12 years old to 16.5 victimizations per 1,000 people in that same demographic in 2021. Between 2012 and 2021, that rate fell from 26.1 victimizations per 1,000 people to 16.5 victimizations.
But there are several other caveats. The data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics bulletin is only one data point, given that the survey it relies on is self-reported by respondents. That means it does not analyze murder, for example. Plus, local police departments keep their own datasets on crime in addition to the FBI, which has a National Incident-Based Reporting System, though it doesn’t include data from all police departments.
Crime as an issue for voters is also shaped by personal experiences, news coverage and other perceptions, even if the data offers another story.
One GOP official argued that the issue didn’t always perform well among voters in House races, for example, because crime wasn’t always relevant to their communities. But that official also said that candidates’ messaging on crime created tighter-than-expected races and resonated with voters in Long Island enough to flip several blue seats red.
“As a whole, though, it was a great issue for Republicans, looking at how the success of New York as probably one of the best indicators of how crime messaging worked,” said the GOP official. “And to be honest with you, yes, Dr. [Mehmet] Oz lost that race in Pennsylvania, but where he started at and where he ended [was] a much closer race than it was over the summer. That was purely because of crime.”
Indeed, Democrats running in House races, for example, were advised to take the issue of crime seriously. A memo from the House Democrats’ campaign arm that was sent to members and candidates earlier this year and obtained by The Hill offered guidance to candidates on how to combat Republican attacks made on “defunding the police” and highlighting their own track record on law enforcement and public safety.
“Republicans will seek to tie every Democrat to ‘defund’ regardless of that Democrat’s record or biography. They are doing this because, sadly, these attacks can work even when they’re obviously false. While these attacks may seem too ridiculous to engage with, that is a mistake. We must respond,” the memo said in part.
While it’s too early to say how the issue of crime will resonate with voters in 2024, some Republicans are hoping it’s not an issue they’ll have to campaign on again. But for Rep.-elect Anthony D’Esposito, a former New York Police Department detective who flipped New York’s 4th Congressional District red in a district that went for the Democrat candidate last cycle by 13 points, he’s telling Republicans to meet voters where the issues are.
“I think the focus of anybody running for office, regardless of where you live or where you’re running is to listen to the voters and stick to the script that they give you. And when you talk to voters and when you poll voters and when you have the issues or the three biggest issues that matter, stick to them,” D’Esposito told The Hill.
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