Politicians Could Win Over Voters Concerned About Crime if They Message on “Serious About Safety” not “Tough on Crime”
Vera Action Releases Results of April and May Surveys Conducted by YouGov
May 15, 2024
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Today, Vera Action released results of three YouGov surveys on how voters respond to messages on crime that reflect a traditional “tough-on-crime” playbook against messages that lead with a “serious about safety” approach. 

The first survey compared a typical “tough-on-crime” message of cracking down on crime and giving more funding to the police against a “serious about safety” message of providing comprehensive solutions to prevent crime, respond to crisis, and stop violence. Overall, voters favored the “serious about safety” message by 9 points over the “tough-on-crime” one. Even when partisan labels were added, the results were virtually unchanged.

“The takeaway from this survey is that the conventional political wisdom that ‘tough on crime’ works is wrong,” said Insha Rahman, director of Vera Action. “Moreover, the conventional political wisdom that voters think Republicans are better on crime than Democrats because they are ‘tougher’ is also wrong. A ‘serious about safety’ approach, that offers real solutions and not just scare tactics, is what voters want from candidates and leaders of all political stripes–not more of the outdated ‘tough-on-crime’ playbook.”

The second survey explored the effectiveness of typical GOP “defund” attacks on Democrats and the recent trend of Democrats responding by going on the attack and calling the GOP the real “soft on crime” party. In a head-to-head split message test with partisan labels, the survey tested two different responses to the GOP “defund” attack: 

  1. A Democratic message that talks about funding the police and criticizes the GOP for siding with January 6 insurrectionists.
  2. A Democrat owning a “serious about safety” approach and offering an alternative along the lines of “I’m not about scare tactics and we can’t expect police to solve every social problem.” 

The results defy conventional political wisdom. The Democrat in the first message test lost by 7 points. The Democrat in the second message test (“serious about safety”) won by 4 points. A “serious about safety” response again comes out ahead of a “tough-on-crime” message, and a Democrat running on it performs better than a Democrat trying to come across as even “tougher” than Republicans

The third survey asked voters which party they trusted more to handle issues of crime and safety as well as which party they heard more from on these issues. The results suggest that the partisan trust gap is quite narrow. While neither party is above water when it comes to voters’ trust on crime, voters hear significantly more on the issue from Republicans—by a margin of 18 percentage points.

Insha Rahman, director of Vera Action and vice-president for advocacy and policy at Vera Institute of Justice says: 

“While the political playbook on crime remains stuck in the 1980s with Willie Horton-style attacks, voters have evolved. 

“Over the past three decades, voters have experienced the rise of mass incarceration, with one in two Americans either having been in jail or prison themselves or had a loved one go through that experience. They have seen bipartisan criminal justice reform, from President Obama championing police accountability to President Trump passing the First Step Act. In short, people–and culture–have evolved, yet politicians from both sides of the aisle haven’t.

“This research is especially timely as millions of dollars in attack ads will be spent in the lead-up to the November election. Our research shows that voters do not want either the GOP or the Democratic conventional ‘tough-on-crime’ playbook. It’s time for a new approach that owns safety, accountability, and justice.”

These three surveys, fielded by YouGov Blue, build on a body of research that Vera Action has conducted over the past two years, including more than a dozen rounds of national and state-specific research to better understand what voters take to the ballot box on issues of crime. 

For more on Vera Action’s research: https://veraaction.org/resources/

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Vera Action, launched in 2021, is an independent but aligned 501(c)(4) organization to the Vera Institute of Justice 501(c)(3). At Vera Action, we harness the power of advocacy, lobbying, and political strategy to end mass incarceration, protect immigrants’ rights, restore dignity to people behind bars, and build safe and thriving communities.

Media Contact: Gaia Filicori, gfilicori@vera.org