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In stark contrast to last summer, more Americans now say violent crime is a “very big problem” in the U.S. than say the same about COVID-19, according to a new Yahoo News/YouGov poll — a shift that suggests policing and public safety could come to dominate U.S. politics as the pandemic subsides, potentially putting the Biden administration and Democratic leaders on the defensive.
The survey of 1,588 U.S. adults, which was conducted from May 24 to May 26, found that just 32 percent of them now describe COVID-19 as a very big problem, down from 61 percent last July. The share who consider violent crime a very big problem, however, has ticked up slightly, to 49 percent, over the same period, making it the top concern ahead of the economy (39 percent), political correctness (39 percent) or race relations (41 percent).
In a certain sense, this isn’t surprising. While mass vaccination has driven COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations to their lowest levels in many months, violent crime has been rising (even though it’s still occurring at a far lower rate than it was for much of the 1990s and before). A recent report by the National Commission on COVID-19 and Criminal Justice found that the number of homicides across 32 U.S. cities went up 24 percent in the first quarter of 2021 compared with the first quarter of 2020, while aggravated assault rates were up 7 percent and gun assault rates were up 22 percent. Nearly two-thirds of Americans (65 percent) now believe violent crime is increasing, including 76 percent of Republicans, 68 percent of independents and 63 percent of Democrats, according to the Yahoo News/YouGov poll. It’s the rare issue that elicits bipartisan agreement.
What is striking, however, is that while anxiety about violent crime has held steady across the political spectrum since last summer, concerns about race relations and sympathy with racial justice reformers have fallen sharply in the wake of the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd one year ago.
Overall, the share of Americans who see race as a “very big problem” in the U.S. is now 13 percentage points lower than it was last July. Among Republicans, that number has fallen 10 points (to 23 percent) over the same period. Among independents, it has fallen 12 points (to 37 percent). And among Democrats, it has fallen 15 points (to 57 percent).
As a result, the political scales seem to be tilting away from racial justice reform, at least as it relates to law enforcement.
Last June, for instance, 60 percent of Americans told Yahoo News and YouGov that there was a problem with systemic racism in policing; 63 percent said there was a problem with systemic racism in America. Today, both numbers are significantly lower: 51 percent and 55 percent, respectively. And while 57 percent of Americans had a favorable view of Black Lives Matter last June (compared with 33 percent unfavorable), today more Americans view BLM unfavorably (45 percent) than favorably (43 percent) — a net shift of 26 points against the movement.
In fact, when Americans who believe violent crime is increasing are asked why, far more now blame "the racial justice movement" itself (57 percent) than blame joblessness (44 percent), systemic racism (40 percent) or the pandemic (35 percent). Likewise, just 27 percent of Americans say law enforcement is “too tough on most offenders”; half say that current levels of law enforcement are either “not tough enough” (32 percent) or “about right” (18 percent). Support for reforms that would "gradually redirect [police] funding toward increasing the number of social workers, drug counselors and mental health experts responsible for responding to non-violent emergencies" has fallen by 7 points (to 42 percent) since last June.
The changing politics of crime and race could reverberate in the months ahead. Democrats who believe crime is increasing cite “systemic racism” (69 percent) as the top reason; Republicans (67 percent) and independents (63 percent) cite “the racial justice movement.” As President Biden pushes Democratic and Republican senators to craft and pass a compromise version of the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act — and as local leaders in largely Democratic cities struggle to respond to rising rates of homicide and assault — these competing interpretations will almost certainly come into conflict, and the political impetus to make progress on race could give way to voters’ concerns about crime.
“Violent crime is significantly higher, and murders … are through the roof," South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, the GOP’s lead police-reform negotiator, said Thursday. “You cannot demonize officers, take away their resources and expect them to do the job that needs to be done.”
Experts debate whether progressive reforms and critical rhetoric have played any role in encouraging violence; they tend to cite the pandemic and record gun sales as likelier factors. Either way, the issue could vex Democrats going forward. Asked who has done a better job handling crime, more Americans (34 percent vs. 32 percent) and independents (39 percent vs. 23 percent) say Trump than Biden.
The Yahoo News survey was conducted by YouGov using a nationally representative sample of 1,588 U.S. adults interviewed online from May 24 to 26, 2021. This sample was weighted according to gender, age, race and education based on the American Community Survey, conducted by the U.S. Bureau of the Census, as well as 2020 presidential vote (or non-vote) and voter registration status. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel to be representative of all U.S. adults. The margin of error is approximately 2.8 percent.
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