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As Midterms Near, Political Ads Seize on Voters' Fears about Crime

People cast their ballots early for the upcoming midterm elections in Las Cruces, N.M., U.S., Oct. 24, 2022.
People cast their ballots early for the upcoming midterm elections in Las Cruces, N.M., U.S., Oct. 24, 2022.

Crime statistics are notoriously hard to interpret. They're often incomplete, out of date and ambiguous. But that hasn't stopped candidates running in the midterms this year from cherry-picking data to score political points.

Take a Republican attack ad against Josh Riley, a Democrat running for a competitive congressional seat in upstate New York. The ad, sponsored by the Congressional Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC, cites a New York Post article about "violent crime surging in New York."

But the June 22 article is about rising violent crime in New York City — and five other U.S. cities — not New York state. The sprawling congressional district where Riley is running is located north of New York City and extends as far as the town of Preble, 363 kilometers north of Manhattan. Excluding New York City, state data show violent crime dropped by 13.1% from 2012 to 2021, the most recent period for which data is available.

This is not the only Republican ad that selectively highlights data to exploit voters' fears about rising crime rates.

With crime emerging as a major concern among voters this election cycle, Republican candidates have reportedly spent tens of millions of dollars on ads blaming Democratic policies for rising violence in the country.

For their part, Democratic candidates have responded by touting their own law enforcement endorsements, sometimes featuring police officers in their ads, while accusing Republicans of fearmongering and "race-baiting."

To critics, the fear-tinged ads on the air across the country recall an infamous episode of American politics from the 1980s.

In 1988, an ad in support of Republican Vice President George H. W. Bush's presidential run accused his Democratic rival, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis, of allowing "first-degree murderers to have weekend passes from prison."

Showcased in the commercial was Willie Horton, an African American convicted of murder who during a weekend furlough stabbed a Maryland man and raped his girlfriend.

The ad, though it was pulled amid accusations of racist fearmongering, was credited with helping Bush get elected.

In the decades since, "Willie Horton" has become an epithet for racially charged ads designed to scare voters with exaggerated claims about violent crime.

Republican candidates and committees have dismissed such accusations during the current election cycle.

Spokespersons for the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee, both of which fund ads for Republican candidates, did not respond to requests for comment.

While it is true that violent crime has been generally trending higher since the mid-2010s after a decades-long decline, the picture is far more complicated than the political ads suggest.

What the data show is that there was a substantial increase in homicides and gun assaults during the pandemic, but the surge appears to be leveling off, according to the nonpartisan Council on Criminal Justice.

The biggest increase came in 2020, when homicides surged by nearly 30%, marking the largest annual rise on record, the FBI reported last year.

But not all crime increased, noted Thomas Abt, a senior fellow at the Council on Criminal Justice and chair of its violent crime working group.

"There wasn't a surge in property crime, and there wasn't a surge in drug crime," Abt said.

While there is a debate among criminologists over whether the spike in homicides and shootings in 2020 was an aberration, there are indications that the trend is slowing.

The FBI's most recent crime data, released earlier this month, are incomplete and almost a year old. But they show that homicides rose by 4.3% in 2021, while overall violent crime actually decreased by 1%.

Moreover, crime trends seen during the pandemic seem to have reversed themselves this year.

During the first half of 2022, homicides decreased by an average of 2% in 29 major U.S. cities, while burglaries, larcenies and car thefts were all up, according to a July report by the Council on Criminal Justice.

The overall decline in homicides seems to have extended into the second half of 2022. Police data from 99 cities compiled by consulting firm AH Datalytics show that homicides are down in twice as many metropolitan areas as they are up so far this year. On average, the 99 cities show a year-to-date decline of 5%.

Notably, homicides are down in New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago, America's three largest cities. But whether homicides are up or down, there is a perception among voters that violence is spiraling out of control and that their elected leaders aren't doing enough to combat it.

In a recent Politico poll, more than two-thirds of voters said crime was a big problem in the United States, while 60% said it would play a major role in whom they vote for.

With homicides at 25-year highs, voters have reason to be concerned, said Justin Nix, associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of Nebraska Omaha.

"There are 23- to 24-year-olds walking around right now who've never seen the homicide rate this high in their lifetime," Nix said.

However, Nix said, voters' perceptions of crime don't always reflect data.

"Americans' perception of the crime and disorder problem don't always match up with the objective data. For example, they might tell you crime went up in the last year when the data show that it went down," he said.

Nix said politicians, and not just Republicans, "manipulate" crime data in a variety of ways.

One common tactic, according to Nix: selectively choose the comparison period.

In Wisconsin, an ad attacking Republican Senator Ron Johnson's Democratic challenger, Mandela Barnes, cites a report by a conservative think tank to inform voters that "violent crime [is] up across Wisconsin." .

But the Feb. 8, 2022, report by the MacIver Institute is focused on the spike in violent crime in 2020 when Wisconsin saw a 62% increase in murders.

Data from the Wisconsin Department of Justice show that homicides rose by 5% last year. The data show that not all crime went up in Wisconsin last year, with both robbery and aggravated assault numbers down. Crime data for 2022 are not available on the department's website.

The MacIver Institute and the Wisconsin Department of Justice did not respond to requests for comment.

Selective Democrats

Republican candidates are not the only ones to highlight selective crime data to win over voters. Joe Cunningham, a Democrat running for governor of South Carolina, cites a June 2021 TV report to tell voters that "crime is at an all-time high" in his state.

And an ad by California Democratic Representative Eric Swalwell cites a report ranking Bakersfield, California, the seat of Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy's congressional district, as "the top 10 most dangerous city in America."

But crime is highly localized in America. Even in "the most dangerous cities," there are neighborhoods that are safe. On the other hand, the "safest cities" may have so-called "hot spots" with a disproportionate number of crimes.

"A lot of the rhetoric concerning crime is just that — rhetoric — and is really seeking to divide Americans against one another with divisive fearmongering," Abt said.

The recent surge in crime, Abt added, is “cause for deep concern but not panic.”

The rhetoric about violent crime is not happening in equal measure. With polls showing that more Republican voters worried about crime than Democratic voters, the Republican Party is outspending the Democratic Party in advertising focused on crime according to political ad spending data.

Blaming the rise in violent crime on one political party is not supported by the facts, Abt said.

"The rise in violence [during the COVID-19 pandemic] was surprisingly uniform. It occurred in red states and blue states. It occurred in cities and also in suburban and rural areas," he said.

While no one knows exactly what drove the crime surge, Abt said most experts agree on three contributing factors: the pandemic, civil unrest following the death in police custody of George Floyd in 2020 and a spike in legal firearms purchases.