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The reason Republican attacks on crime are so potent

The party’s closing argument is exploiting voters’ fears.

Mehmet Oz, Republican Senate candidate for Pennsylvania, speaks during a community discussion on safer streets in Duquesne, Pennsylvania, on September 30.
Nate Smallwood/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

BUCKS COUNTY, Pennsylvania — Two years ago, Mary, 55, a resident of New Britain Township, voted for President Joe Biden because she couldn’t stomach the alternative.

“I could not vote Trump because he’s so despicable,” Mary told Vox. (She declined to share her last name in order to protect her privacy.)

This year, however, she’s supporting Mehmet Oz, the Republican running for Senate, because she’s worried that Lt. Gov. John Fetterman is too far to the left. “I have an issue with how risky he is,” she said, citing the “release of criminals” as a key point of concern.

Mary’s worries about crime come as Republicans hammer the subject in the Pennsylvania Senate race — and many other races across the country — as it’s proven to be an effective message for swaying suburban swing voters fearful of upticks in violence during the pandemic.

For Pennsylvanian Republicans, this has meant weaponizing Fetterman’s positions on criminal justice reform, including his advocacy for pardons and sentence commutations, to falsely suggest he wants to free dangerous criminals. Republican ads have claimed that he’d make the state “less safe,” a charge that Fetterman has rebutted by pointing to his record combating shootings as mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania.

Republicans’ attacks seek to tap renewed voter fears, which follow a recent increase in murders nationwide. While violent crime has been trending downward for decades, Philadelphia was among the places that saw a significant jump in homicides — 57 percent — between 2019 to 2021, an increase that has many people here on edge. Other places including Chicago and Oklahoma City have seen similar trends as murders increased 30 percent between 2019 and 2020 at the national level.

“The surge in messaging is because of a surge in violence that’s taken place. The salience of political messaging about crime goes up when crime goes up,” says Rutgers professor Lisa Miller, who’s studied how criminal justice issues can mobilize voters.

Republicans’ ads have capitalized on these anxieties by misleadingly blaming Democrats for this uptick and exploiting racist assumptions voters may hold about who’s responsible for these crimes. Recent polls and dozens of conversations with voters here make it evident that they’re finding a receptive audience, and moving the political needle. After Republicans spent millions on crime ads in Pennsylvania throughout September, polls between Fetterman and Oz tightened considerably and the Democrat’s favorability numbers took a hit.

Republicans’ spending, too, appears to reflect just how effective they see this line of attack being. All told, Republicans have spent $157 million on crime-related ads at the national level, compared to $105 million on the economy and inflation, according to data from the ad analysis firm AdImpact. And the breakdown is even starker in the Pennsylvania Senate race, where Republicans have spent nearly $12 million on crime ads, compared to $2.5 million on the economy and inflation.

Political scientists note that Republicans have long leveraged attacks on crime — and the racial biases they evoke — but they are resonating more this cycle because of the public’s heightened fears about crime and ongoing backlash toward “defund the police” rhetoric that the GOP has tied to Democrats. “Crime is a pretty potent opportunity right now because it’s been dramatically in the news for the last few years,” says Miller. “It’s a visceral issue.”

Messaging on crime is having an impact in Pennsylvania

A trio of billboards right outside Philadelphia quite literally spell out Republicans’ efforts to frame Democrats as “soft on crime.” Against the backdrop of what looks like a boarded-up building, the signs bear a comically simple and menacing message: “Fetterman = poverty and crime.” It’s a statement that’s clearly false, but it illustrates just how explicit Republicans are being in their message to voters on the subject.

A billboard on the highway outside of the Philadelphia suburbs spells out Republicans’ misleading message on crime.
Li Zhou/Vox

Republicans have focused these attacks on places where they see the topic being more relevant to voters: In both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, for example, there have been significant increases in homicides in major cities like Milwaukee and Philadelphia over the past three years, which have added to local worries in the surrounding suburbs.

Additionally, there have been high-profile news events that have made the issue more salient. The Pennsylvania legislature, controlled by Republicans, has been conducting a controversial impeachment push against progressive Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, whom they accuse of contributing to higher crime rates, another development that’s renewed focus on the topic.

Fetterman’s record has also left him particularly vulnerable to crime attacks. He’s offered more progressive stances on a host of criminal justice issues, including sentencing reforms for second-degree murder charges and a more expansive approach to clemency — stances Republicans have been all too happy to seize on as they try to stoke anxieties of voters in the suburbs.

Multiple Oz supporters whom I spoke with in Bucks County, one of the suburban “collar counties” around Philadelphia that could be decisive in this election, expressed fears that the crime taking place in the city would come for the suburbs next. These counties — which include Bucks, Chester, Montgomery, and Delaware — make up a crucial and populous purple region that helped sway the 2020 election for Biden and the 2016 Senate election for Republican Sen. Pat Toomey.

“I can’t say what’s going on with Philadelphia with increased crime is directly linked to Fetterman, but there might be some overlap there and I don’t think that’s the road that we should go down,” said Brett Duffey, 20, a college student and registered Republican.

Duffey was among the voters who cited recent robberies of Wawa convenience stores in the area as an example of the crime uptick feeling like it was hitting closer to home. As of late October, seven Bucks County Wawa outposts had cut their evening hours because of two armed robberies that took place, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

“It’s coming this way,” says Bob Donnelly, 69, a Republican and Bucks County resident. “I used to go to South Street in Philly. Now I can’t, because of what’s on the news.”

According to state statistics, crime rates in Bucks County have stayed relatively flat in recent years, a trend that matched data Brian Munroe, the region’s clerk of courts and a Democratic candidate for state legislature, shared with Vox. Multiple voters noted, too, that they couldn’t point to specific incidents but mentioned a general sense that “lawlessness” was increasing in the area.

While voters’ perceptions of crime don’t always align with what the data shows, that hasn’t prevented the issue from becoming an especially relevant one this cycle. In a set of October Gallup polls, 71 percent of US respondents said crime was important to their vote for Congress, while 56 percent said they believed that there was more crime in their area compared to a year ago.

Republicans, Democrats argue, are exploiting these fears.

“They are trying to scare people, especially the elderly,” said Charles Bodner, 36, a Bucks County resident and Fetterman supporter. “At the end of the day fear is a great motivator and fear is very easy to stoke.”

In fact, Republican messaging hasn’t focused much on how GOP lawmakers would address genuine concerns that voters may hold on the issue of crime. Instead, it’s centered on distorting Fetterman’s pardon board record and arguing that he’d empty the state’s prisons if elected, with Oz’s campaign going so far as to call him “pro-murderer.” Oz recently released a plan spelling out criminal justice reforms he’d pursue, though his past positions muddle some of these policies: He says he’d support penalties that get illegal guns off the street, for example, but has yet to stake out a clear position on a recently passed bipartisan gun control bill, which would make it harder for people to obtain a gun via illegitimate channels.

Fetterman’s record on the pardon board, which has included working to free those who were wrongly convicted and people convicted of murder who’ve served decades in jail and been deemed low safety risks by corrections officials, is also far more nuanced than Republicans have portrayed. None of the people who’ve been freed from prison during Fetterman’s time overseeing the pardon board have reoffended, according to his campaign.

“Dr. Oz lies about my record on crime,” Fetterman has said. “Two of the things that I was most proud of in my career — stopping the gun violence as a mayor and fighting for the innocent and other individuals for a second chance — that is my record on crime.”

Republican attacks on crime are a nationwide strategy

Republican investments in crime messaging extend far beyond Pennsylvania as well.

In Wisconsin, Republican Sen. Ron Johnson and a host of outside groups have also spent heavily on the issue as they try to retain control of the state’s hotly contested Senate seat. Many of these ads use racist imagery and language, and are clear attempts at stoking fears about Johnson’s Black opponent, Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, in a state that’s overwhelmingly white. One such ad describes Barnes as “dangerous” and “different” while emphasizing his support for ending cash bail and juxtaposing his image against women of color who are members of “the Squad.”

“We are experiencing right now one of the most racist campaigns that I’ve seen in a long time,” said University of Wisconsin Milwaukee political scientist Kathleen Dolan. “It’s full of scare tactics about violent crime, despite the fact that a lieutenant governor does not have a whole lot of control about crime. It’s very clear they are trying to remind people that this guy is Black.”

Like Fetterman, Barnes has suggested progressive solutions to criminal justice reform, including a plan to reduce the state’s prison population — a history the ads distort. “Look, we knew the other side would make up lies about me to scare you,” Barnes has said in an ad pushing back against Republican claims that he wants to “defund the police.”

The onslaught appears to have moved a segment of swing voters in Wisconsin, however, with Barnes’s support among independents going down in the wake of huge television spending in August and September. Johnson was trailing Barnes earlier this summer but now holds a 4-point lead in polls, though many surveys are still within the margin of error.

That lead came in part from a major investment: Republicans spent nearly $10 million on crime-related ads in Wisconsin compared to $7 million on economic issues, according to AdImpact. In Wisconsin, 70 percent of digital ads in the Senate race have focused on crime, while just 15 percent have focused on inflation, according to NPR.

Other contests have also seen major spending on the issue, according to AdImpact, like the New York, Illinois, and Nevada gubernatorial races, as well as Senate races in Arizona and Florida.

In New York, Republican candidate Lee Zeldin has sought to use the issue as a cudgel against sitting Gov. Kathy Hochul, pointing to the rise of crime in New York City and arguing that her support for policies like bail reform is responsible — a claim researchers are continuing to study. In Oregon, Republicans have similarly tried to use an uptick of violence in Portland, and damage that resulted from the 2020 racial justice protests, against Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tina Kotek. And in Georgia, Gov. Brian Kemp has aimed to tie his Democratic opponent Stacey Abrams to the “defund the police” movement, even though they have both opposed it.

Democrats have been on the defensive on this issue as Republicans flooded the airwaves in August and September, prompting critiques that the party didn’t have a ready-made counter to these attacks. “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,” Ashley Aylward, a research manager at HIT Strategies, previously told Vox’s Nicole Narea.

Fetterman’s campaign argues that it’s been addressing the issue of public safety for months, and anticipated Republican attacks on this front, an approach that other candidates haven’t necessarily taken.

Increasingly, too, Democrats are now going on the offense and trying to call out Republicans when it comes to the January 6 insurrection and the GOP’s unwillingness to confront gun violence.

“When we talk about respect for law enforcement, let’s talk about the 140 officers [Johnson] left behind because of an insurrection he supported,” Barnes said during the Wisconsin debate in early October. Fetterman recently used this tactic at a gathering in Chester County, Pennsylvania, as well. “I’m not sure how you can be considered very pro-police if you don’t support getting as many guns off the street as you can that don’t belong on there,” he said, while calling out Oz’s position on gun control.

In many states, Democrats — Fetterman and Johnson among them — also have law enforcement officials vouching for their positions supporting the police.

Additionally, House Democrats passed bills in September hoping candidates could use them to demonstrate that the party backs funding for law enforcement: These bills would provide more resources to local police departments that could be used for deescalation training and data collection, as well as money to address unsolved violent crimes. The Senate didn’t take up the measures, however.

It’s not yet clear if these responses will be sufficient to neutralize GOP attacks given both their timing and the volume at which Republicans have pushed their messages on crime. As CBS News reported, 70 percent of Republican ads airing in Wisconsin have focused on crime since August 30, and 53 percent of Republican ads in Pennsylvania have done the same.

Why messaging on crime is so potent

A big reason that Republicans have invested so much on the issue of crime is that it works as an emotional appeal, and can activate racist views that people may hold.

“It’s one of the things that’s more emotional even than the economy. Crime is simply an emotional thing,” said Nolan. And while crime has not risen to the same degree across the board, broader trends have helped make Republicans’ midterms messaging more potent.

Nationally, murder rates in large cities appear to have declined slightly this year relative to last year, according to a New York Times report, though they’re still higher than pre-pandemic levels. Other types of crime, like thefts and robberies, however, have been increasing in major cities relative to last year.

“Whereas in previous elections it was relatively easy for Democrats to parry this issue by pointing out that crime rates have declined tremendously, the resurgence of crime during the pandemic has given new life to this issue,” said Columbia University political scientist Don Green.

Republicans’ messaging on crime is also building on a longstanding history of the GOP describing itself as the party of “law and order,” branding that’s led voters to trust them more on the issue. In an October Ipsos survey, 37 percent of registered voters said they trusted Republicans more when it comes to handling crime, compared to 22 percent of registered voters who said the same about Democrats.

Many past campaigns have leveraged — and reinforced — this dynamic, including when President Richard Nixon famously ran as the “law and order” candidate in the 1960s, with claims that he’d push back on protests and unrest related to the civil rights and antiwar movements, to assuage white voters’ fears about these demonstrations. Roughly two decades later, Republicans employed this strategy to help President George H.W. Bush win his presidential election as well, using the notorious Willie Horton attack ad to paint his opponent Michael Dukakis as “soft on crime” and amplify racist stereotypes about Black Americans.

As the Bush — and now Johnson — ads show clearly, the attacks on crime are implicitly and explicitly about race, another reason they’re so effective.

“It’s not even a dog whistle, it’s a megaphone. People hear race, people hear ‘the other,’ people hear Black,” says Cliff Albright, a co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “When all else fails, we can use the specter of crime because it speaks to people’s fears and it serves so clearly as a proxy for race.” As Ed Kilgore previously explained for New York magazine, even the origins of “law and order” as an idea stem from keeping systems in place to maintain white supremacy and segregation.

In the 1960s, Nixon’s focus on crime was aimed at reassuring suburban voters that he’d protect them from the violence that had accompanied civil rights demonstrations in places like Los Angeles and Chicago. This year, Republicans are aiming to once again capitalize on suburban voters’ fears of the crime taking place in cities, and how it could affect them.

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