In the wake of the midterms, Republicans have been openly ascribing blame — to their leaders, to their candidates, and even to former President Trump. But with all their finger-pointing they have yet to look in the mirror to see if their own messaging on crime was part of the problem or part of the solution.
In national exit polls, crime was tied for last as a vote driver, well behind both abortion and inflation as the main issue people said determined their votes. And with all the talk that crime would be a huge benefit for Republicans, it was the least politically divided topic tested; just 57 percent of those saying crime was their top issue voted Republican. By comparison, 76 percent of voters who said abortion was their top issue voted Democratic.
This is a disappointing showing for an issue that was such a major part of Republican ad traffic — about a third of all September and October Republican advertising in federal races. Ask any Democratic candidate or casual television viewer in a battleground state and they’ll describe feeling overwhelmed by crime ads. And it was not just the top of the ticket. Commercial breaks were filled with “grainy footage”-style ads about murders, rapes, robberies, even beheadings, no matter the office.
Some of Republicans’ executions seemed particularly desperate. Washington state Republican candidate Tiffany Smiley blamed Sen. Patty Murray for a closed Starbucks. In New Mexico, Mark Ronchetti attacked Democratic Gov. Michelle Lujan-Grisham over a crime that occurred before she took office. In Wisconsin, Gov. Tony Evers’ Republican challenger earned a “pants on fire” rating from fact-checkers for blaming paroles on Gov. Evers himself. Elsewhere, Republicans apparently made up connections between Democrats and the “defund the police” slogan.
Yet, unlike Republican attack ads on trumped-up culture war issues such as drag shows and critical race theory, crime actually harms people. Federal crime data are murky, and no one should dismiss voters’ fears about crime as imaginary. In fact, Democrats took the issue seriously, highlighting their own crime initiatives or endorsements from local law enforcement.
Republicans didn’t offer crime solutions and succeeded in making views about crime more partisan. Right before the election, Gallup found that any recent increase in fears about crime came almost exclusively from Republicans, creating a wider partisan gap on crime than at any point in over 30 years.
Instead of being “tough on crime,” Republicans were, in fact, weak on crime. Many opposed a bipartisan gun control policy, even if exit polls showed “gun policy” to be as important as crime, and fear of school shootings loomed large. Other Republicans voted against greater accountability for tax cheats, and devoted time to stoking fear of IRS agents banging on the doors of middle-class families. Lastly, hardly any Republicans came out forcefully against Trump’s illegally removing documents from the White House, or even against the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.
Time Republicans could have spent offering crime solutions was instead often spent on racist tropes much like the “caravan,” or “Sharia law” scares of elections past. In Arizona, Trump aides tried to prop up failed Republican candidates with expensive baseball playoff ads about immigrants “draining your paychecks” with “violent predators” who are “mixed among the masses.” In Pennsylvania, the Mehmet Oz campaign attacked Lt. Gov. John Fetterman for having “two convicted murderers” on staff, surely knowing the Horton brothers’ sentences were commuted.
Some in the media were quick to identify causality — Republicans were talking about crime, polls seemed to be slightly narrowing, so surely those two were connected. Pundits called these attacks “devastating,” “potent,” and working to “tighten Senate races.” But were races tightening because of the messaging on crime, or because tens of millions of dollars of attack ads inevitably have some impact?
Even otherwise discouraging polls provided clues. CNN’s poll a week before the election showed Democrats behind in the vote for Congress and in enthusiasm, but only 3 percent of those polled named crime as their top issue. This national New York Times/Siena poll also showed Republicans ahead in the vote for Congress, yet just 3 percent said crime was the most important issue facing the country. An October Navigator Research poll — an ongoing project that our firm co-leads — showed crime decidedly mid-pack in a list of four issues on which Washington should focus. With such a heavy volume of crime advertising, if it were a slam dunk, Democratic candidates in battleground states would have been badly damaged — not just tied — and crime would have been seen as more important.
Come Election Day, voters set the record straight. Republicans tried to distract voters from flawed GOP candidates, Trumpism and abortion bans with their go-to move. But crime ultimately didn’t change the topic; it just reminded voters of the scary, misleading and divisive tone that made them reject Republicans in the first place. The next time Republicans try this — and there will be a next time — we should not be so quick to assume it will be effective.
Margie Omero is a principal at GBAO, a Democratic polling firm that this election cycle worked with Govs. Tony Evers (Wis.) and Laura Kelly (Kan.), Sen. Raphael Warnock (Ga.), and with incoming Gov. Tina Kotek (Ore.) and incoming Sen. John Fetterman (Pa.). Follow her on Twitter @MargieOmero.