WASHINGTON — On April 4, abortion rights won, and crime fears lost, in two Midwestern races symbolic of how the major political parties have sought to rally voters by invoking America's two most divisive social issues.
Anxieties about crime had vaulted Paul Vallas — a Democrat with conservative sympathies and Republican donors — over incumbent Lori Lightfoot in the first round of voting. He seemed to have an even easier task in the runoff, where he faced second-place finisher Brandon Johnson, a progressive county commissioner who once supported shifting funding from police to social services.
Vallas campaigned on a simple notion: He would make Chicago safer, Johnson would not. Others put it more vividly than the candidate himself. There would be “blood in the streets” if Johnson won, a local police union leader ominously warned.
And yet, despite the predictions of most pundits, Johnson prevailed. His victory was seen as an affirmation of what some observers had been saying for months: that although recent crime increases worry many voters, simplistic law-and-order messages from candidates for office have failed to resonate.
Abortion, on the other hand, continues to motivate both moderate Democrats and committed progressives.
On the same day that Johnson won in Chicago, Wisconsin judicial nominee Janet Protasiewicz defeated her Republican rival in a closely watched state Supreme Court race by promising to protect access to abortion. Now a narrow liberal majority in control of the court is expected to prevent an 1849 anti-abortion law from going into effect.
The results in Chicago and Wisconsin point to trends that could prove challenging to Republicans in the months leading up to the crucial 2024 elections, which will decide not only whether Joe Biden remains in the White House but also who controls Capitol Hill and governors’ mansions in politically consequential states, including North Carolina and Missouri.
Since the news first broke a year ago that the Supreme Court intended to overturn Roe v. Wade, the 1973 case that legalized abortion nationwide, Democrats have won election after election while promising to protect access to the procedure. Just two weeks after the ruling, an anti-abortion referendum was defeated in Kansas, a reliably conservative state. A Democrat won a swing district special election in New York by focusing on abortion rights.
And in Washington, Democrats saw an issue that could motivate voters still seemingly stuck in a pandemic funk.
Republicans saw it too.
“They’re going to make everything about abortion,” Republican chairwoman Ronna McDaniel complained in September as the 2022 midterms approached.
For the GOP, crime was supposed to be an equal and opposite force — the countervailing concern that would motivate base voters with "Blue Lives Matter" flags fluttering in front yards while keeping skittish suburbanites in their camp. And just as some Republicans had fretted after Roe’s demise that the party had gone too far, now some moderate Democrats were warning that progressive messaging on policing and criminal justice reform was going to lead to a GOP takeover of both chambers of Congress.
In 2020, the national homicide rate skyrocketed by nearly 30% — a record spike — amid the upheaval of the COVID-19 pandemic. And although the rise in violent crime affected red and blue states alike, the GOP capitalized by yoking Democratic candidates to activist demands to “defund the police.” In the congressional election that followed, a few months later, the GOP flipped as many as a dozen U.S. House seats, even as it lost the White House.
In retrospect, however, the fall of 2020 may have been when the potency of crime as an electoral concern reached its apex.
New data shows that murders peaked in major U.S. cities in 2021 — and have been falling ever since, as the social and institutional disruptions of the pandemic recede into the rearview mirror. In the first quarter of 2023, Los Angeles, Chicago and New York all recorded fewer murders than they did a year earlier; today the national homicide rate is about half of the record highs set in 1980 and 1991 (even as it remains much higher than it was before the pandemic).
According to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll conducted earlier this month, this reversal may be starting to register in the collective American consciousness despite lingering concerns about disorder in major cities: A minority of Americans (40%) say violent crime is higher now in their own community “than it was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021,” while more say it is either lower (10%) or about the same (33%).
Just 6%, meanwhile, rate crime as the most important issue when thinking about next year’s election.
These trends come right on top of an election cycle that showed the limits of campaigning on crime. As the 2022 midterms approached, some liberals worried that even though most Democrats had renounced the defund movement, they had not fully absorbed the lessons of 2020. “How Democrats Mishandled Crime,” read the headline of an American Prospect essay by Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg, who wrote on the eve of the midterms that the party was “in terrible shape” when it came to public safety.
But Republican efforts to recycle a law-and-order message from 2020 mostly fizzled in 2022, with the GOP spending more ad money railing about rising crime than about the economy or inflation — only to see Democrats fare better in the midterms than any incumbent party since 2002.
Yet the GOP is still counting on the same apocalyptic crime message from 2020 and 2022 to persuade voters in 2024. Republicans cite the recent controversy over criminal justice reform in Washington, D.C., which requires congressional approval. They objected to the D.C. bill, which would lower penalties for many crimes. That was of little surprise, since the GOP has generally distrusted D.C. home rule.
Far more surprising was that 31 Democrats in the House voted in favor of blocking D.C.’s reforms. Biden had previously supported D.C. statehood, but he too came out against the reforms, arguing that lowering penalties at a time of heightened crime anxieties made little sense. It was a response pegged less to crime trends than to feelings about crime.
“House Democrats had a meltdown when President Biden deemed their vote to support reduced penalties for violent crime too extreme,” Will Reinert, spokesman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, told Yahoo News. “These members just saw New York become a graveyard for Democratic campaigns on the wrong side of public safety, and they fear they are digging a grave for their own political careers.”
Earlier this year, House Republicans also held a hearing to highlight what they saw as the overly lenient policies of Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, one of several high-profile progressive prosecutors who have pushed for policies like decarceration and greater police accountability — and have faced some backlash, especially in cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles.
“We’re heading for anarchy and lawlessness,” Rep. Harriet Hageman, R-Wyo., said at the hearing. Republicans contrasted the 34-count indictment that Bragg recently issued against former President Donald Trump to his supposed leniency in cases involving murder and assault, arguing that his priorities were misguided.
Trump himself is prone to hyperbolic comments about crime. In March, he described his longtime home of Manhattan as “one of the most dangerous and violent cities in the United States ... where killings are taking place at a number like nobody’s ever seen” as criminals just “knife [people] in the back, hit them over the head with a baseball bat, push them into subways.”
And Trump’s strongest potential rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, recently undertook a tour of cities run by Democrats, where he spoke to law enforcement groups and touted his own record on public safety. “If you’re engaged in mob violence in Florida, you ain’t going to be treated like they do in Portland,” he said in a February speech in suburban Chicago, referencing the chaotic protests that gripped Oregon’s largest city in 2020 and eventual led its progressive mayor, Ted Wheeler, to adopt a more aggressive attitude toward policing.
But with the disruptions and disorder of 2020 receding in public memory, Republicans may see crime-based messaging yield diminishing returns in 2024.
Nevertheless, the reality of crime in America continues to be complex. As a new Brookings Institution study on the “geography of crime in four U.S. cities” reveals, lingering COVID aftershocks in America’s urban cores (such as shuttered storefronts and emptier streets) have combined with endemic symptoms of “disorder” (such as public drug use and homelessness) to heighten a sense of lawlessness in some cities.
According to Brookings, major downtown areas have remained “some of the safest places to be,” statistically speaking — with recent crime increases “concentrated in disadvantaged neighborhoods that already had high rates of gun violence.” But “small increases from a low baseline can seem more significant than they are,” especially when amplified by sensational media coverage and viral online forces.
And so it remains to be seen whether there are enough Americans who agree with the GOP’s fear-forward strategy to win next November. If not, Republicans might need to adjust to the changing reality of post-pandemic crime in the U.S. and come up with a message that resonates for them the way abortion resonates for their opponents.
Part of the discrepancy may be that while abortion is a wrenching moral, religious and emotional issue, the political contours around reproductive rights are clear. If Democrats have a majority in a legislative chamber or court bench, they will protect abortion rights; Republicans will restrict them when in power. The same cannot be said about criminal justice, which involves overlapping jurisdictions and branches of government — very little of it at the federal level.
“You’re not going to fix the problems from [Capitol Hill],” criminologist Jeff Asher told the New York Times. “If you want to fix the problems, go run for mayor.”
Meanwhile, it doesn’t help the GOP’s case that mainstream Democrats, from Biden on down, have been making a concerted effort for years now to sound moderate on crime. After seeing her party lose the House in 2020, Rep. Abigail Spanberger, a centrist Democrat from a blue-ish region of Virginia, scolded progressives on a conference call for an anti-police message that she said was only helping Republicans. Since then the overwhelming majority of Democrats have come around to her view.
Biden himself was never a proponent of the “defund” movement and was, in fact, criticized for having been instrumental, during his time in the Senate, for passage of the 1994 crime bill, which increased penalties for some drug crimes. Once he took office as president, he repeatedly said he wanted to fund, not defund, police departments, calling on states to do so with funds from his $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief bill.
“Joe Biden is one of the few politicians who has effectively crafted a balanced response to all of these issues,” says Thomas Abt, a leading criminologist at the University of Maryland who chaired the Council on Criminal Justice’s Violent Crime Working Group. “Biden has probably navigated better than anyone else how to balance social justice with public safety.”
Another problem for Republicans is that states that voted for Trump in 2020 actually have higher murder rates — by 23%, on average — than states that voted for Biden, suggesting that violent crime is connected more to lax gun laws and complex socioeconomic dynamics than a local prosecutor’s partisan affiliation.
“In 2020 and 2021, crime increased in urban areas, suburban areas and rural areas,” says Abt. “It increased in red states and it increased in blue states. It increased in cities that were led by Republican mayors and cities that were led by Democratic mayors. It happened across the board. But when you overlay certain regions in certain states, you find that where there are more permissive gun laws, you see more gun violence.”
Finally, as post-COVID normalcy returns, urban crime trends are increasingly diverging from the “war zone” caricature favored by GOP candidates. The clearest example may be Los Angeles, where former Democratic Rep. Karen Bass defeated longtime Republican mall magnate Rick Caruso in last November’s mayoral race despite Caruso’s pledge to double down on law and order.
According to Los Angeles Police Department data, homicides plummeted 28% from the first quarter of 2022 to the first quarter of 2023 — a decline that puts them back on par with the pre-pandemic numbers from 2019. The 661 instances of gunfire recorded during the first three months of 2023, meanwhile, mark the lowest quarterly count in almost three years. Robberies fell 19% over the same period, putting them well below 2019 levels. Overall, violent crime in the city of L.A. through April 1 is down 11.7% compared with the same period last year.
New York is similar, with year-over-year declines in shooting incidents (-23.1%), murder (-6.6%), rape (-7.9%), robbery (-2.6%) and burglary (-7.9%).
Not every major U.S. metropolis is showing such consistent progress; while violent crime fell 7% in Washington, D.C., from 2021 to 2022, it has increased by 7% so far in 2023. Certain categories of crime — such as motor-vehicle theft — continue to trend upward. And overall violent crime rates still have a way to go before they return to pre-pandemic levels.
“Many cities are trying to approach this issue in a measured way by combining improved policing with more access to services and treatments and supports,” says Abt. “And that is broadly the approach Democrats at the national level are taking — supporting more resources for law enforcement and more resources for non-law-enforcement approaches to violence, while at the same time calling for reasonable restrictions on guns.
“But the response from certain hard-line Republicans is one-sided,” Abt continues. “They are just sensationalizing this issue and calling for outdated, get-tough strategies from the ’80s and ’90s — while at the same time calling for more and easier access to guns.”
None of which means that public safety isn’t a real, or valid, concern.
“It is absolutely true that the really high crime rates of the ’70s and ’80s and early ’90s are not being replicated today, and I think that’s worth mentioning,” says John Roman, director of the Center on Public Safety and Justice at the University of Chicago and a member of the Council on Criminal Justice’s Crime Trends Working Group. “But to compare America today to an America 30 years ago — I don’t think it’s that helpful. I think it underplays how much gun violence has increased, and I think it makes us less willing to take this on.”
Nearly 7 in 10 Americans (68%) now believe violent crime is increasing across the U.S., according to the latest Yahoo News/YouGov poll (up from 63% in late October 2022). Just 7% think violent crime is decreasing, while 18% venture that it’s staying the same. A full 59% also believe violent crime is higher now “than it was at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020-2021.”
The fact that these perceptions diverge from actual crime trends — and from the lower, less pessimistic numbers that prevail when poll respondents are asked about crime in their “own community” — is nothing new, experts say. Historically, Americans almost always tell pollsters that crime is going up nationwide regardless of whether it is or isn’t.
The GOP’s perceived advantage on crime isn’t a recent development either. Americans say Republicans would do a better job on the issue (40%) than Democrats (29%), and that Trump did a better job (38%) than Biden has (26%). With the brief exception of former President Bill Clinton — who famously “triangulated” on public safety with his sweeping 1994 crime bill — Republicans have led Democrats in similar polling for decades.
But ultimately there’s only so much the GOP can do on crime. Will it be enough to propel a candidate like Trump past Biden or fuel a Republican sweep in down-ballot races at a time when Democrats can counter with abortion? The current public-safety situation could be too complex — and voters themselves too conflicted — for the same old scare tactics.
“There’s a sensible center in the crime debate,” says Abt. “But too many politicians are only interested in the vitriol of campaigning right now. They’re not interested in the boring mechanics of governance, which includes making compromises and finding balance.”
The American people, however, might have other ideas.