What Are Republican Candidates For President Saying About Crime, And Is Any Of It True?

September 18th, 2023 by Tom Lynch

We Americans have come to live in a perpetual election cycle, and, although the next big election (these days they’re all big ones) is still 14 months away, you’d think it was tomorrow given the hair-on-fire catastrophizing spewing from the myriad Republican presidential candidates.

The candidates seem to have landed on four issues to hyperbolize: migrants coming across the southern border, the continuously rising crime rate (which, devoid of evidence, Republicans say the migrant “invasion” exacerbates¹), inflation, and, lately, Joe Biden’s old age decrepitude.

Folks, from here to November 2024, ad nauseam, we are going to hear about the horrors implicit in each of those  horrendomas, particularly so if one happens to live in or near one of the seven “battleground” states that, according to all the pundits, will decide who wins: Arizona and Nevada in the west, Georgia and North Carolina in the southeast and Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania in the northern industrial belt.

And I’m not kidding about ad nauseam. According to the political advertising intelligence company AdImpact, as reported by David Lauter of the LA Times, on-air advertising for this presidential cycle will top $10.2 billion. That’s up 13% over 2022’s midterm election spend. Contrast this to the 2012 election cycle when President Barrack Obama and Mitt Romney each managed to break through the $1 billion mark. How quaint eleven years ago seems.

Seldom have so many spent so much to persuade so few.

Regarding those four hot topic issues, the alleged migrant “invasion,” inflation, Biden’s age, and exploding crime, let’s focus on violent crime for a moment.

Much of the more than $10 billion projected to be spent during this election cycle will be spent to convince Americans we are in the midst of an explosion in crime, and if you don’t elect the right person (take your pick), it will be coming to a doorstep near you in the blink of an eye.

How true is that?

Actually, not very.

Criminology academics have long known that for nearly 25 years Americans’ perception of crime has been far greater than the reality of crime, which in the Department of Justice is known as the “violent victimization rate.” It was in the presidential race of 2000, pitting George W. Bush against Al Gore, that political operatives discovered the carrying power of scaring people by exaggerating about violent crime, which is, and has been, steadily declining for 30 years. As the Department of Justice reported in 2022, “the last 3 decades saw an overall decline in the violent victimization rate from 79.8 to 23.5 per 1,000 from 1993 to 2022.”

But you’d never know that from listening to the Republican candidates for President, all of whom have made curbing violent crime—getting tough on criminals, as they put it—a central issue of their campaigns.

Americans also believe crime in the rest of the country is much worse than in their neighborhoods.

The crime issue has become overwhelmingly partisan. No matter who occupies the Oval Office since 2000, the opposition is screaming about crime, as this chart from Gallup shows. Notice the huge spike after Joe Biden’s election.

And nearly three quarters of Republicans, as well as about a third of Democrats, say migrants make things worse in the areas of crime and the nation’s economy (see Note 1).

These opinions contradict facts, which show an upsurge in violent crime has not happened and the country’s economy has markedly improved during the Biden presidency. For example, the U.S. has added more than 13 million jobs—including nearly 800,000 manufacturing jobs—and unleashed a manufacturing and clean energy boom. Moreover, there were more than 10 million applications for new small businesses filed in 2021 and 2022—the strongest two years on record.

Nonetheless, if one looks objectively at the political scene in this election cycle, removing partisanship as much as possible, there are a few areas of justifiable great concern.

First, the clamor about Joe Biden’s age is not going away. This is a high hill for Biden to climb, because it is not a reflection of his current job performance, but rather a fear that if he wins and takes the oath of office as an 82 year old man, he will not be able to finish his second term, because of death or steep decline in cognitive function. Research has shown that Americans want assurance that the trust they place in candidates by voting for them will be validated by the candidates they elect, at the very least, serving out their terms competently.

Second, immigration, a tremendously complicated issue, will continue to bedevil and bewilder the nation regardless of who is leading it.

Third, the affordability of health care, which, with the exception of criticizing Medicare’s new-found ability to negotiate drug prices, thereby lowering costs to seniors, none of the candidates wants to talk about. This, despite 64% of Americans considering health care costs a “very big problem,” according to the Pew Research Center. Yet, reining in our highest-in-the-world health care costs seems an almost insurmountable challenge, given the well-entrenched special interests that have driven costs to more than twice the OECD average.

Fourth, another thing the Republican candidates avoid is any discussion about the winnowing out of the middle class. As Richard V. Reeves and Isabel V. Sawhill, of the Brookings Institution, wrote in 2020, middle class income has grown much slower than either the highest or lowest quintiles in the nation since 1979, resulting in the middle class shrinking from 61% of households to 50% today. They posit the principal reason for this is because the middle class lacks “economic power.” They write, “Importantly, the modest income growth of middle-class families is almost entirely due to the rise of working hours and especially the wages of women.” The unfortunate result of all this middle class economic stagnation is that, for the middle class, as the economist Jared Bernstein so memorably put it, “economic growth has become a spectator sport.”

Fifth, there are our thermonuclear culture wars. Since the birth of the Freedom Caucus, nothing exemplifies the toxicity of our public discourse more than citizens showing up at Library Trustee Meetings to harangue their volunteer neighbors about the books on the shelves.

You will not hear these, or other critically important issues, debated by the Republican candidates for President. Why? Because they’re complicated and cannot be reduced to sound bites.

But sound bites are what we’ll all get—ad nauseam.


¹ According to a study by the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh, Andrew C. Forrester, and Michelangelo Landgrave, native born Americans commit about twice the rate of crime as both legal immigrants and undocumented immigrants. If you doubt that, read the study.