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The defense Democrats aren’t using against Republicans’ soft-on-crime attacks

If not “defund the police,” what should Democrats’ messaging on public safety be?

A person’s feet standing on an American flag on a sidewalk beside a hand-lettered sign reading “defund police.”
Hundreds gathered in downtown Los Angeles for a Black Lives Matter demonstration in September 2020.
Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
Nicole Narea covers politics and society for Vox. She first joined Vox in 2019, and her work has also appeared in Politico, Washington Monthly, and the New Republic.

In their closing arguments to midterm voters, Republican candidates have sought to connect their Democratic opponents to increases in crime and continued to misleadingly hammer Democrats of all stripes as supporters of the “defund the police” movement. It’s the latest rendition of age-old “soft on crime” attacks, and it appears to be effective.

Republicans have escalated their attacks on Democrats’ record on crime in a number of Senate races that have tightened in recent weeks. In Wisconsin, Republican incumbent Sen. Ron Johnson has seen a rebound in the polls after his campaign and GOP groups spent more than $4 million on TV ads focused on crime in September alone. Similarly, in Pennsylvania, Republicans have also spent millions criticizing Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman for an increase in commutations and pardons on his watch.

Crime isn’t the only issue on voters’ minds this fall, but it is a big one, with 60 percent of voters saying in an October Politico/Morning Consult poll that crime would play a major role in deciding who they would vote for. Only the economy and abortion were ranked as more important. An October Reuters poll found that more voters think Republicans are better equipped to deal with crime than Democrats.

Democrats have mostly turned against the phrase “defund the police,” with President Joe Biden blaming the slogan for his party’s lackluster performance down the ballot in 2020. But they haven’t managed to deliver a coherent message on public safety in its stead. Part of that stems from the diversity of Democratic voters: Candidates often struggle to make the affirmative case for their platform without alienating the progressive element of their base or potentially persuadable, more moderate voters. But new data from Democratic consultancy groups Change Research and HIT Strategies suggests that it’s not only feasible for Democrats to have a pithy, unified anti-crime message, but actually advisable.

“Democrats really need to approach this head-on and no longer run from it. Voters are receiving fear-based messaging because Democrats haven’t defined our stance,” said Ashley Aylward, a research manager at HIT Strategies. “So once we can explain that approach by focusing on the positive message that centers on investment in the community and on solutions, then I think it would really set us up for a much better pathway than avoiding the topic altogether.”

It’s clear Democrats need to find a way to rebut Republican attacks; if they’re going to try out the strategy developed by Aylward and her colleagues, however, they will need to act quickly to make a meaningful difference in poll numbers before the November elections.

A poll-tested proposal for messaging on crime

The results of three different polls and six focus groups by Change Research and HIT Strategies make clear something moderate Democrats have been saying for some time: The phrase “defund the police” has become politically radioactive for them. The polls found just 27 percent of Americans support “defunding the police” with no explanation or definition of the phrase.

The GOP has sought to exploit the unpopularity of the phrase in competitive races across the country, but it has played an outsized role in Senate races in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Nevada. Republican nominee Adam Laxalt is running an ad in Nevada in which police groups who previously endorsed his opponent, Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, and are now backing him claim Cortez Masto wants to defund the police.

To counter those attacks, the groups say that Democratic candidates should be calling out America’s overreliance on police to solve every public safety problem and arguing for prevention over punitive measures to combat crime — a frame that was particularly popular among Democratic base voters and the persuadable voters they identified.

“The issue area where we do find division is when we highlight a villain,” Aylward said.

Voters being told that Democrats are villainizing police likely doesn’t play well due to the high levels of trust many have in local law enforcement. According to the groups’ polling, 81 percent of Latinos and 77 percent of white people trust the police either “a great deal” or “a moderate amount.” Notably, however, only 54 percent of Black people said the same.

In part due to disparate levels of trust in the police, the groups recommend candidates focus their messaging on the solutions rather than laying blame at the feet of police.

They propose specific language for candidates to use, such as saying that “it’s just common sense that police are not the right answer to every single problem,” that there are “better-suited first responders for certain emergencies,” and that “spending limited city budgets on flooding the streets with cops” won’t address the root causes of crime.

That’s a different tack than some Democrats have been taking, which has been to suggest Republicans are anti-law and order because many failed to immediately and forcefully condemn the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol or to portray themselves as “tough on crime.” It remains a question, however, whether a nuanced discussion of public safety reform will stick in voters’ minds the way that Republicans’ allegations that “Democrats want to defund the police” have.

The groups say that it will in part because it isn’t just designed to respond to Republican attacks but also to draw back in people who registered to vote in big numbers following protests over the killing of George Floyd in 2020.

“We think that by re-engaging in this conversation and actually working on the problem that turned out so many folks, we’d be able to bring them out to vote in this election or the next,” Aylward said.

In fact, the pollsters found that — much as was the case in the wake of Floyd’s killing — there is a real audience for proposals to divert some police funding to first responders, education, anti-poverty measures, and housing. When given a choice between that option and maximizing funding to police departments, the firms found that 62 percent of Americans supported funding the alternatives. (That’s more than the 47 percent of Americans who supported reallocating police funding to social programs in a 2020 Gallup poll.)

Significant majorities also would rather that an alternative first responder be dispatched to address a substance abuse episode, to a homeless encampment, and to someone in mental or emotional distress than a police officer. Voters who were most supportive of those proposals were people under the age of 49, Black people, and Latinos.

Some Democrats are already pursuing this crime messaging

Many Democratic candidates, particularly those in close races, are already pursuing a similar strategy of focusing on public safety solutions and distancing themselves from the “defund the police” rhetoric.

Senate hopefuls Barnes, Fetterman, former North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice Cheri Beasley, and Florida Rep. Val Demings have explicitly said that they don’t support defunding. But they do support funding for alternatives to policing.

Barnes has repeatedly said that he supports redirecting police funding, telling a Wisconsin public radio show that funding should go to social workers and a “crisis intervener or a violence interrupter,” instead of police. Fetterman has said that while he wants to make sure “law enforcement has the resources necessary to do their job,” he will “also prioritize oversight, accountability, and violence prevention.”

Those messages, however, have suffered under GOP attacks; Barnes and Fetterman have been labeled progressives, a group that has supported defunding, and each has been linked to the defund movement by their opponents. Beasley and Demings, on the other hand, have attempted to use their moderate positioning and past links to law enforcement — the former with the courts, the latter as a former police chief — to make the case that they have a nuanced insider’s view of how public safety could be improved.

Beasley thinks more money, not less, should go into public safety overall, and that includes funding for community violence prevention programs and alternative first responders like mental health professionals and substance abuse counselors. Demings has supported legislation in the House that would fund community violence intervention initiatives and train and dispatch mental health professionals to respond to emergencies involving behavioral health.

Despite these efforts, the polling suggests Republican attacks on crime are resonating, and Democrats are running out of time to defend their records.

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