One message in campaign ads from Republican
candidates and their allies ahead of the Nov. 8 elections is this:
America is a dangerous place. Democrats made it that
The ads — in races for governor, U.S. Senate and
U.S. House — aim to trigger fear. They typically contain three elements: News
reports of violent events; crime statistics; and blame cast on the Democratic
candidate, reports Politifact.
ad attacking New York’s Democratic governor warned voters their lives
could be at stake.
"You’re looking at actual violent crimes caught
on camera in Kathy Hochul’s New York, and it’s getting much worse on Kathy
Hochul’s watch," the narrator says while video clips show shootings
and beatings. "On November 8th, vote like your life depends on it. It just
These types of ads, said Dan Gardner, author of the
book "Risk: The Science And Politics Of Fear," are "very
deliberately designed to increase the feeling of a lack of safety. They want
you to be afraid because that’s effective.
"Feeling threatened is a great motivation,
we’re wired to respond to feelings of threats," he added, referring to
voter turnout. "There’s a reason why this is one of the oldest plays in
the political playbook."
Political spending on ads about crime, what data shows
In 448 ads from Sept. 1 through Sept. 15 for Senate,
House and gubernatorial races, crime was the third-most mentioned issue, behind
abortion and inflation, according to an NBC News analysis.
Spending on ads about crime is high. The New York
Times reported on
Sept. 26, citing data from AdImpact, a subscription service, that in the
previous two weeks, Republican candidates and groups spent more than $21
million on ads about crime — more than on any other policy issue — and
Democrats spent nearly $17 million.
The ads are rooted in real-world changes. Although
nationally, violent crime remains below the
record rates of the early 1990s, several categories of violent crime have seen
significant increases since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
"The murder rate is still 30 percent above its
2019 level," though murders in major cities and shootings nationwide have
decreased this year, compared with the same period in 2021, the New York
In 70 large U.S. cities, aggravated assaults and
robberies increased in the first half of 2022, compared with the first half of
2021, while homicides and rapes decreased, according to police department surveys by
the Major Cities Chiefs Association, an organization of police executives
representing the largest cities in the United States and Canada.
Candace McCoy, a criminology professor at City
University of New York, said the COVID-19 pandemic helped spur increases
in violent crime as people recovered from isolation, the loss of loved ones and
other residual effects.
"People are just in despair and the trauma
radiates," she said. "People get angry when they’re
Max Kapustin, a Cornell University economics and
public policy professor who is affiliated with the University of Chicago Crime
Lab, referenced the 2020
death of George Floyd at the hands of police and said it’s not
uncommon to see spikes of violence after incidents of police violence.
"Combined with the strain and disruption caused
by COVID, and the fact that acts of violence can kick off retaliatory cycles,
it means this increase may be with us for some time," Kapustin said.
Some statistics in ads check out, blame is misplaced
Here’s a closer look at the New York ad plus ads in
two hotly contested races for the Senate, which now has a 50-50 party split.
The claims of rising crime are often valid, but the
blame is often misplaced.
New York: Hochul has been governor since August
2021, following the resignation of Democrat Andrew Cuomo; she had served as
lieutenant governor since 2015.
The ad, released Sept. 14, said violent crime is
"getting much worse on Kathy Hochul’s watch." It was from her
Republican opponent, U.S. Rep. Lee Zeldin.
Zeldin’s campaign did not cite statewide crime
figures when contacted by PolitiFact, but pointed to statistics for two cities,
including New York.
Year-to-date data through
Sept. 18 from New York City police shows that murder was down 13% from the same
period in 2021, but other violent crimes increased year-over-year, including
robbery (up 38.1%) and felony assault (17.4%).
a role in fighting crime by helping determine funding for local
governments, including police departments. But many factors,
including the stress of the pandemic and the pressures of inflation in the past
year, contribute to fluctuations in crime, which is typically viewed as a more
One ad attacked a Georgia U.S. senator who is even
more removed from the crime problem in a single city.
Georgia: A social media ad from
34N22, a super PAC that supports the Republican nominee, Herschel Walker,
targeted Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock. The PAC’s name comes from Walker’s
jersey number as a University of Georgia football player (34) and the year of
the election (22).
The ad claimed: "Atlanta — more likely to be a
victim of murder, aggravated assault, burglary, theft and auto theft than
The super PAC cited to PolitiFact a July 27 news
story by 11 Alive TV in Atlanta that compared year-to-date crime
figures from the Atlanta and Chicago police departments for 2021 and 2022.
The statistics show that on violent crime, the
picture was mixed.
Murder and aggravated assault rates, per 100,000
people, were higher in Atlanta than in Chicago. On the other hand, Chicago had
higher rates of rape and robbery.
McCoy, the criminologist, told PolitiFact that crime
control is a local matter.
If candidates for federal office "go around
saying that crime is their primary issue, either they don’t know what the
federal government does, or they are pandering," she said.
Wisconsin: Wisconsin Truth PAC, a super PAC
supporting GOP Sen. Ron Johnson, targeted the Democratic nominee, Mandela
Barnes, the state’s lieutenant governor. In an ad posted Sept.
17, the narrator said:
"Violent crime up across Wisconsin. Families
nervous about their safety. Yet, Mandela Barnes called for releasing half of
Wisconsin’s jailed inmates. That would mean releasing over 10,000 criminals
right into our neighborhoods."
The images in the ad included a clip of a man
driving an SUV into a Christmas parade in suburban Milwaukee in November
2021, leaving six
people dead and more than 60 injured.
"From a rational perspective, it doesn’t
actually tell you anything about safety because it’s an incredibly unusual,
strange crime," Gardner said about the clip. "But from a
psychological perspective, it’s extremely powerful."
Some violent crimes have increased in
Since Barnes was sworn in along with Democratic Gov.
Tony Evers in January 2019, homicides jumped from 187 in 2019 to 321 in
2021, according to
the Wisconsin Bureau of Justice Information and Analysis. Aggravated assaults
increased, while the number of rapes stayed about the same and robberies
But the ad misleads about Barnes. He has supported reducing
the state’s prison population by half, over several years, but not by releasing
half of the inmates.
Instead, he has advocated for prison education
programs to reduce recidivism and
for sending drug offenders to rehabilitation rather
Democrats’ ads about crime, meanwhile, typically
have defended their records.
Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is facing
Republican Dr. Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania’s Senate race, pushed back against ads
painting him as soft on crime with an ad Sept. 26
featuring a uniformed sheriff praising Fetterman.
In Florida’s Senate race, Rep. Val Demings used ads
in June and August to
highlight her efforts to curtail crime when she served as Orlando’s police
chief. She is running against GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.
Will the ads be effective?
Experts’ views differ on whether ads highlighting
violent crime are effective in motivating voters.
Two national polls conducted
in September indicate that the public believes the GOP does a better job
handling crime than Democrats.
"Republicans have long been perceived as being
tougher on crime," said Karlyn Bowman, a fellow at the American Enterprise
Institute think tank whose specialties include public opinion and
The ads highlighting crime aim "to motivate
voters to see the candidate themselves in a certain way," said University
of Nebraska sociologist Lisa Kort-Butler, who studies the media and crime.
"Tough-on-crime messaging historically and tacitly represents something
more than crime: that the candidate is on the side of ‘us’ and against
Julia Azari, a political science professor at
Marquette University in Milwaukee, said that in the past, "law and
order" messages were used as a wedge to highlight racial tensions and
drive some Democratic-leaning voters away from the Democratic Party.
"However, today, the parties are highly sorted
on race and partisanship dominates vote choice," she said. "So it
seems unlikely that these ads will function as effective wedges to split the Democratic
coalition, though they could still prove powerful in other ways, such as
mobilizing Republican voters or tipping swing voters in close races."
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