As Voters Reject Crime Scare Tactics in the 2022 Midterms, Democrats Must Seize the Opportunity for a New Path Forward on Safety and Justice
November 10, 2022 12:00 AM
Democrats bucked historic trends at the polls this week on several fronts—including on issues of crime and safety. Voters overwhelmingly saw through the fearmongering and rhetoric about crime that dominated election ads and debates in 2022. Despite a staggering amount of money spent on crime ads in the final weeks of the campaign, many Democratic candidates were able to overcome and even counter Republican attacks portraying them as “soft on crime.”
Crime/safety is one of the few kitchen table issues that spans partisan divides. Everyone, regardless of how they vote, wants to be safe. For too many decades, though, knee-jerk assumptions about voter preferences on criminal justice resulted in “tough-on-crime” policies that drove mass incarceration yet failed to make communities safer. What voters actually want from their elected leaders to prevent crime and deliver safety, according to pre-election public opinion research commissioned by Vera Action, are solutions—not scare tactics.
The midterm election results suggest that the nation is ready for a new path forward. Many Democratic candidates in competitive districts outperformed expectations, and a national poll released weeks before Election Day found that 80 percent of voters —across the political spectrum—support justice reform.
Graphic courtesy of FWD.us
Yet, clearly issues of crime and safety still mattered. Several close races for governor, attorney general, and even Congress, hinged on these debates. Reform prosecutors, drug policy ballot initiatives, and other justice reform measures prevailed in many, but not all, states. While voters overall rejected the crime scare tactics, Democrats in places that recently passed high-profile reforms were taken to task if they failed to convince voters of the evidence—that these policy changes are consistent with public safety.
To better understand how crime and safety played out at the ballot box, Vera Action commissioned Hart Research Associates to conduct a one-of-a-kind online national exit survey from November 6-8, 2022, of 1,505 actual voters across the political spectrum. Here are the five key takeaways that emerged:
The national politics on crime are changing. Voters saw through the fearmongering and dog whistles, signaling they want solutions, not scare tactics, when it comes to safety and justice.
The $157 million bet by Republicans on ugly, Willie Horton-style crime scare tactics during election season to take down Democratic candidates did not pay off. Many factors were at play for why, unlike in years past, crime fearmongering as a national campaign strategy failed the GOP.
According to exit polls, and consistent with Vera Action’s crime and safety exit survey results, other issues—the economy and abortion—rose to the top for most voters. In Vera Action’s exit survey, 3 out of 5 survey respondents said this year’s election campaigns did not affect their awareness of crime as an issue. But exit polls also found that crime and safety mattered most to 11 percent of voters in making their voting choices.
Graphic courtesy of NBCNews
When asked if crime was either the “single most or one of the most important issues,” 69 percent of voters in Vera Action’s national exit survey said they considered the issue of crime when casting their vote. While the importance of crime ended up ranking lower than many expected going into Election Day, it still made a mark—especially in tight races.
Issues of crime and safety are a significant concern for the Democratic base, but those concerns do not equal support for punitive criminal justice policies and more of the status quo.
Leading into the election, a Gallup poll found that a record-high percentage of Americans—56 percent—believe that local crime has increased. Vera Action’s more nuanced look at voter concerns about crime and safety reveals that this issue is a high priority for key segments of the Democratic base, including 73 percent of Black women voters and 58 percent of Black men voters.
Yet voter concerns about crime and safety do not equal more support for the policies that have fueled mass incarceration and fail to deliver safety. In Vera Action’s summer 2022 polling of almost 4,000 likely voters from across the political spectrum, conducted before ad spending on crime ballooned, the vast majority—74 percent—agreed that the safest places in the country prioritize investments in jobs and economic prosperity, good schools, housing, and health care over more police, jails, prisons, and harsher sentences.
Graphics courtesy of Hart Research Associates on behalf of Vera Action
Even after an election season of unprecedented fearmongering about crime and safety, support for preventing crime before it happens, and not just reacting after, persists. When respondents to Vera Action’s national post-election exit survey were asked to make a binary choice between: doing more to get “tough on crime, like having stricter sentences for people convicted of violent crimes, maintaining strong bail laws to keep potentially dangerous people in jail, and giving police more support and resources,” or choosing to “fully fund things that are proven to create safe communities and improve people’s quality of life, like good schools, a living wage, and affordable housing, and do more to prevent crime by increasing treatment for mental health and drug addiction and cracking down on illegal gun sales,” 53 percent picked the solutions-oriented preventative approach compared to 47 percent for the punitive one. Among Democratic voters, preference for a solutions-oriented approach jumped to 76 percent. Among Black and Latinx voters, support for a solutions approach was an overwhelming 64 percent and 60 percent respectively, compared to the alternative.
Crime and safety are felt most locally. Even in typically blue parts of the country that have made real progress on justice reform, voters expect honest conversations about safety and solutions.
Crime and safety played an outsize role in a few races where sustained fearmongering about recent criminal justice measures—namely bail, drug policy, and policing reforms—began well before the midterm election season.
New York’s 2019 bail reform law has been under attack for three years, despite its success. The law has benefited more than 8,000 New Yorkers who returned home to their families, jobs, and communities instead of awaiting trial in jail, and no credible evidence has been found to link the reform to increases in crime. Nevertheless, the multi-year fearmongering campaign has been effective at undermining public support for the law. In sharp contrast to polls elsewhere, New Yorkers ranked crime as the most urgent issue going into Election Day. Those concerns played out at the polls, where incumbent Democratic Governor Kathy Hochul secured only a narrow 5-point victory over her Republican challenger, Lee Zeldin, who spent millions attacking Hochul for failing to repeal bail reform.
In Oregon, Measure 110, a 2020 ballot initiative that voters approved by 17 points to decriminalize drug possession and increase funding for drug treatment services, reduced arrests and saved lives within a year of implementation. Arrests for drug offenses declined by 60 percent and more than 16,000 people accessed treatment instead of facing prosecution for drug use. Yet again, despite evidence of success, Measure 110 and the aftermath of racial justice protests in the summer of 2020 loomed large in the Oregon gubernatorial race, where two out of three candidates committed to repealing the reform if elected. As of two days after Election Day, the exceedingly competitive race for the governorship has still not officially been called, but Tina Kotek, the one candidate supportive of Measure 110, is currently predicted to prevail.
A similar story repeats itself in Minnesota, where Attorney General Keith Ellison led the high-profile prosecution of Derek Chauvin, the police officer who murdered George Floyd. On the campaign trail, Ellison’s opponent for attorney general attacked him relentlessly for his support of policing reform and Question 2, a 2021 charter amendment to replace the Minneapolis Police Department with a department of public safety that won 44 percent of the public’s vote but ultimately failed. Again, Ellison prevailed in the race, but by less than one percentage point.
The lesson here is not to run away from justice reform measures which, despite the controversy, remain popular with voters across the political spectrum. It is for candidates to own the issue of safety and to message clearly and confidently that justice reform is consistent with safe neighborhoods and communities. Months after campaigning on other issues, and under pressure from her party to speak up on crime, Governor Kathy Hochul finally delivered an affirmative vision on safety with a late-October election ad: “A safe walk home at night, a subway ride free of fear, a safer New York for every child—that’s what Kathy Hochul is working for as governor, and she passed a comprehensive crime plan to make it happen… . You deserve to feel safe, and as your governor, I won’t stop working until you do.” Delivering that message early and often on the campaign trail could have changed the margins of the gubernatorial race and impacted the outcome of downballot congressional and local races where Democrats overall performed underwhelmingly in a deeply blue state.
\ The success of Democrats in Illinois offers a case study on how to effectively reassure voters that reform is consistent with safety. Democratic incumbents who championed the state’s Pretrial Fairness Act, a bail reform measure set to take effect in 2023 that has inspired the same kind of backlash as New York’s bail law or Oregon’s drug policy law, have talked openly on the campaign trail about the need for justice reform and safety. Virtually all of them won re-election, from Governor J.B. Pritzker to state legislative champions like Representative Justin Slaughter, despite relentless and racist fearmongering about the law leading up to the election.
A winning strategy is neither “progressive” nor “conservative” on crime—it must have a strong, affirmative vision with solutions for preventing crime and delivering safety.
The conventional punditry is that if voters express concerns about crime and safety, candidates and elected leaders should adopt “tough-on-crime” language and policies to assuage those fears. Less than a week before Election Day, famed Democratic pollster, Stanley Greenberg, wrote in the American Prospect that Democrats had “mishandled crime” and needed to reassure their base with a more conservative approach to crime, safety, and justice. Yet, on Election Day, candidates who seemed to beat the odds and ran successful campaigns did so not by being “progressive” or “conservative” on crime and safety, but by putting forward a strong, affirmative vision with solutions for preventing crime and delivering safety.
John Fetterman’s successful Senate campaign is a case in point. His opponent, Mehmet Oz, put up billboards that read: “Fetterman = Poverty and Crime.” As Lieutenant Governor, Fetterman was on record as a supporter of sentencing reform and clemency. Millions of dollars in ads were spent attacking him as “soft on crime.” Yet, on the campaign trail, he leaned into a vision for preventing crime and delivering safety. One of his often repeated phrases was, “I’m a Democrat Running on my Record on Crime.”
Fetterman also spent campaign dollars to reach voters with bold campaign ads, including one featuring a Pennsylvania sheriff proclaiming: ”I’m sick of Oz talking about John Fetterman and crime. Here’s the truth: John gave a second chance to those who deserve it—nonviolent offenders, marijuana users. He voted with law enforcement experts nearly 90% of the time. He reunited families and protected our freedom. And he saved taxpayer money. John Fetterman has the courage to do what’s right. Dr. Oz doesn’t know a thing about crime, he only knows how to help himself.”
When faced with attacks for granting clemency to two brothers wrongfully convicted of murder, Fetterman, unlike many other candidates, did not try to pivot attention away from his record or soften his stance on justice reform. Instead, he released an ad featuring the two brothers saying: “We were forgotten men [in prison]. John Fetterman reached out and pulled us up. He knew he would be attacked but it was the right thing to do. That’s who John Fetterman is.”
Many other Democratic candidates only addressed crime and safety on the campaign trail when attacked. They adopted “tough-on-crime” language to counter GOP accusations of support for “defunding the police” or being “soft on crime,” or they deployed counterattacks on their Republican challengers, such as targeting their support or lack of condemnation for the January 6th Capitol riots (which, to voters, may have landed as ignoring their concerns about local crime and safety). In contrast, John Fetterman stood out as having heard voter concerns and responding with a winning vision. Exit polls suggest he bucked the trend of voters typically having less confidence in Democrats’ handling of crime and safety compared to Republicans. Of Pennsylvania voters who said crime was the most important issue to their vote (11 percent), 51 percent voted for Fetterman over 49 percent for Oz.
Public support for justice reform persists—including in typically red parts of the country.
Across the country, wins for justice reform demonstrate that public support persists on the issue.
In addition to wins by the likes of Fetterman, Pritzker, and Hochul, reform prosecutors won their elections in Hennepin County (Minneapolis), Dallas County (Texas), Marion County (Indianapolis), Polk County (Des Moines), and Hays County (Texas).
Maryland and Missouri joined 19 other states in legalizing marijuana.
In Alabama, Oregon, Tennessee, and Vermont, ballot initiatives passed to improve prison labor conditions.
The main takeaway:
Democrats may have just dodged a bullet on crime. They can confidently gain the upper hand for future elections with a strong, affirmative vision for making all communities safe and just.
Republicans did not sway voters at the polls with scare tactics to the degree they were banking on. This does not mean Democrats won the day on crime and safety. The issue may not have brought the “red wave” many anticipated, but many races were razor thin, and crime and safety played a role. The reality is both parties are underwater with voters on their handling of this issue. An October ABC News/Ipsos poll found that only 22 percent of survey respondents said they trust Democrats on issues of crime and only 35 percent trust Republicans. That means nearly two-thirds of people don’t trust Republicans on crime either.
Neither political party has done a good job putting forward a comprehensive plan for truly making communities safer and convincing voters that both safety and justice are possible. This presents a big opportunity for Democrats to seize the opening and put forward a real vision. Moving forward, elected officials and candidates should:
- Validate and acknowledge the right for everyone to feel safe and secure where they live.
- Boldly put forward a vision and solutions to make communities safer.
- Message early and often about safety and justice on the campaign trail.
- Enact the concrete solutions that we know work and that the public supports, which include: sending trained counselors to respond to 911 crisis calls for mental health, drug use, and homelessness; reducing incarceration and excessive police contact; holding police accountable when they abuse their power; holding people accountable when they break the law; supporting people returning from jail and prison; stopping the flood of guns into communities; and increasing investment in the foundational things on which safe communities are built—jobs, good schools, housing, and health care.
The biggest takeaway of all is that voters demonstrated that they believe in both safety and justice reform. By embracing new policies and new politics, Democrats in national and local offices can own the issue, make progress, and win.