Opinion | ‘Republicans Own These Issues, and They Can Hurt Democrats’

To advance his relentless political ambition, Donald Trump has ridden a promise, a commitment and a pledge.

A promise to end the illegal flow of migrants, drugs, cash and guns “across our border.”

A commitment to stop other countries seeking “to suck more blood out of the United States.”

A pledge to impose law and order solutions on cities “where there is a true breakdown in the rule of law,” describing a majority Black city like Baltimore as “a disgusting, rat and rodent infested mess,” and warning gangs of shoplifters just last week that if he is elected again, “We will immediately stop all of the pillaging and theft. If you rob a store, you can fully expect to be shot as you are leaving that store.”

How relevant are those themes going to be heading into the 2024 election? Will they work to attract enough voters for him to win? Do they address the sources of voter anxiety?

Here are some sources of voter angst that have Trump relishing his rematch with President Biden. Crime — urban and rural — has become more unsettling and threatening. Carjacking, for example, is on the rise of (growing in Washington, D.C. from 152 in 2019 to 485 in 2022). Murder in major cities is up 33.7 percent from 2019 to 2022; gun assaults are up 43.2 percent. Shoplifting, which, in Trump’s telling, creates an image of urban lawlessness reinforced by liberal prosecutors’ adoption of policies like no cash bail and the non-prosecution of misdemeanors. The southern border has become increasingly porous, with the number of migrants crossing into the United States in August breaking all records as the U.S. Border Patrol arrested over 91,000 migrants. Southern Republicans, in turn, have shipped migrants by bus to New York, Washington, Chicago and other municipalities.

The incumbent president, Joe Biden — fairly or unfairly — does not convey the image of a leader in control of events.

The damage inflicted on students in public schools by the Covid lockdown, by school shootings and by conflicts over race, gender and sexual identity — particularly over what can and cannot be discussed or taught — is broadly undermining confidence in American education.

And then there is the problem of inflation, which, for many Americans, is eating away at their sense of security and their standard of living.

The reality is that Trump has plenty to capitalize on, but the question remains: with his venomous and often incoherent rants, with 91 felony charges against him, with his White House record of chaos and mismanagement, has Trump worn out his welcome with all but his hardcore MAGA loyalists?

I posed these questions to a cross-section of scholars and political operatives. Their responses suggest that Trump might well be a competitive nominee in 2024, with the potential to win a second term in the White House.

Sean Westwood, a political scientist at Dartmouth, captured in an email the conflicting forces at work as the next election approaches: “Americans see the collapse of safety in Portland, Seattle and San Francisco and blame the entire Democratic Party for the policies of a fringe extreme.”

Westwood cited data in a Pew Research study showing that “a majority of Republicans and Independents and a near majority of Democrats (49 percent) reported that violent crime was important to their 2022 vote (including 81 percent of Blacks).”

While “Trump is successfully branding Democrats as weak on crime and immigration,” Westwood continued, it remains uncertain whether he can persuade voters he is the better choice: “It is hard for Trump convince Americans that he is the tough-on-crime candidate while simultaneously demanding the destruction of the Department of Justice and railing against the integrity of the judicial system.”

In the case of immigration, Westwood argued, “Democrats don’t seem to have a coherent policy they can sell to Americans.”

“As with crime and immigration, the state of the economy should be wind behind a Republican’s sails,” he added.

Trump, however, in Westwood’s view, remains an albatross strangling Republican ambitions:

By sticking with Trump the party is potentially sacrificing huge advantages to support an elderly man who could spend the rest of his life in prison. This is a Republican election to lose, but Trump might just help the Democrats survive their own policy failures.

In an April Brookings essay, “The Geography of Crime in Four U.S. Cities: Perceptions and Reality,” Hanna Love and Tracy Hadden Loh argue that

While stoking fears of crime is an age-old election tactic, something feels different about its salience in the pandemic-era landscape. Faced with slow-recovering urban cores and predictions of an “urban doom loop,” many pundits and urban observers are returning to a playbook not fully deployed since the 1990s — pointing to public safety as the primary cause of a host of complex and interconnected issues, from office closures to public transit budget shortfalls to the broader decline of cities.

Love and Loh interviewed nearly 100 business leaders, public officials and residents of New York, Seattle, Philadelphia and Chicago. Their primary finding:

Respondents overwhelmingly pointed to crime — not the desire for flexible work arrangements — as the top barrier to preventing workers’ return to office. Across all four cities, the vast majority of resident, major employers, property owners, small business owners and other stakeholders reporting rising rates of violent crime and property crime downtown and indicators of ‘disorder’ (such as public drug use) as the top barriers to stopping workers from coming back to the office — and thus impeding downtown recovery.

Christopher Wildeman, a sociologist at Duke, wrote by email that both immigration and crime pose difficult political choices for Democrats, especially those with progressive ideals: “First for the migrant question, any large uptick in marginalized populations that is visible to native populations have the potential both to create unease among those populations and to be blamed for any increases in the risk of victimization that folks feel.”

How much does this hurt the Democrats?

“I would say a whole heck of a lot potentially unless they are willing to adopt the sort of stance to crime and punishment that President Bill Clinton took in his 1992 campaign and presidency.”

The result?

This rise in visible criminal activity and social unrest leaves Democrats where they essentially either give up their values in terms of crime and punishment and keep voters in the middle or hold the line in terms of crime and punishment (continuing to argue for more progressive policies) and risk losing some votes. It’s not a great spot.

Wildeman is not alone in his belief that these issues are quite likely to work to the detriment of Biden and the Democratic Party generally.

Robert Y. Shapiro, a political scientist at Columbia, emailed his view that

the themes that are to the Democrats’ disadvantage are more relevant than they were in 2016. The burden posed by migrants is a greater issue, and the increase in the crime rate and murder rate along, with the inability of law enforcement to control rampant shoplifting in some cities, can even make the Democrats’ base among minority voters and college educated voters uneasy, and also women — varying geographically.

“Republicans own these issues,” Shapiro pointed out, “and they can hurt Democrats. These issues along with education, race and gender identity will help Republicans running for Congress and state offices, even if they benefit Trump less due his other serious baggage.”

Roland Neil, a social scientist at the RAND Corporation, also pointed to the dangers facing Biden and his fellow Democrats:

Two things we can be certain of: first, violent crime increased dramatically in many cities, especially when the pandemic hit; and second, this coincided with various progressive criminal justice reform efforts, such as bail reform, more lenient prosecution in some jurisdictions and calls to defund the police.

While the incidence of violent crime has subsided in recent months, Neil noted:

Focusing on that misses the point, since the issues drawing attention are all real problems facing cities and the public has taken notice. They should not be dismissed as trivial, as they genuinely impact safety and quality of life.

There is no consistent and reliable data, Neil wrote, “for crimes and disorder that have been drawing much attention, like carjacking, retail theft by flash mobs, open air drug markets and the changing nature of encounters with homeless people.”

That said, he added, “there is evidence that carjackings are up in several cities since the pandemic. Also, drug overdose deaths are at historical highs, and motor vehicle theft is up sharply in many cities.”

Philadelphia, according to Neil, “presents an interesting case: shootings and murder are down by about a quarter this year (from a very high level), but flash mob retail thefts likely create the sense of a city that is losing control.”

Phillip Atiba Solomon, a professor of African American studies and psychology at Yale, stressed the racial implications of Trump’s strategy in his emailed reply to my inquiry, arguing that these have the strong potential to sway white voters:

Broadly, I think the themes you outline can be simplified to, “We’re the victims, and the victimizers are getting away with murder.” And, yes, I think they’ll apply this year as well as in any year when the “we” includes a coalition of elites and paycheck-to-paycheck working folks, each of whom reasonably see themselves as losing ground they once felt confident belonged to them (however ill-gotten that ground was in the first place).

According to Solomon,

This is a country that generally makes life hard for working people and is busily shifting symbols around that are meaningful to people who identify as white. Under those circumstances, it’s easy to manipulate feelings that life is not fair into feelings that “we” are being persecuted by “those people” who are stealing what “rightfully belongs to us” — literally, figuratively and with all appropriate scare quotes.

The current political environment entails both conflict between the parties and disputes within each of the parties. Neil Malhotra, a political scientist at Stanford, described this ambiguity in an email:

The conventional wisdom is that any Republican candidate for president, not just Trump, should focus on three issues: inflation, immigration and crime. Trump may be uniquely positioned to take advantage of these three issues, particularly since he has a more moderate image than his competitors on issues where Republicans are disadvantaged: abortion and entitlements — Social Security and Medicare.

The flip side, Malhotra wrote, “is that the Democratic candidate for president should be focusing the campaign around abortion rights, climate change, health care and economic inequality.”

Malhotra cited a Pew Research survey from June, “Inflation, Health Costs, Partisan Cooperation Among the Nation’s Top Problems,” that broke down the issues on which voters agree more with Republicans than Democrats and vice versa.

Republicans had the edge on economic policy (42-30), immigration (41-31) and crime (40-30). Democrats led on climate change policy (41-27), abortion (43-31) and health care (39-27). The smallest gaps were on foreign policy, favoring Republicans (37-33), gun policy (statistically even) and education, favoring Democrats (37-33).

Crime, in Malhotra’s view,

is a particularly interesting topic because it’s always been more about perception than reality. Violent crime statistics have been declining during the Biden Administration from the Covid peak, but there is a general image of lawlessness mainly around property crime, which I believe is a real and persistent problem in many areas.

In the case of crime, Malhotra wrote, “You don’t actually need to be a victim or even in danger for it to affect your political worldview. I suspect a lot of Americans’ reaction to property crime is a sense of helplessness and a world they are not used to.”

Malhotra made the case that Trump loyalists are a more complicated constituency than they are often described as being:

There is a lot of talk of MAGA voters as wanting to go back to a 1950s America characterized by racism and sexism. I’m sure people like that exist, but there is another type of MAGA voter that I’ll call “end-of-history MAGA.”

Many of these people are members of Gen X (born between 1961 and 1981), which is a generation that slightly leans Republican. “End-of-history-MAGA” people look back to the 1990s as a peak period of American greatness characterized by economic strength, declining crime, etc. I don’t think these people can be easily dismissed as racist or sexist. But they may believe that America has been in decline on many dimensions.

The entry of growing numbers of younger voters into the electorate, Malhotra noted, will work to Biden’s advantage, as they “generally see immigration and crime as less important issues than older voters.”

But, Malhotra cautioned, “a potential threat for Biden is that younger voters are being crushed by high rent, high interest rates and low housing supply, and they see little optimism for experiencing the American dream of homeownership.”

Matthew Levendusky, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, makes the point that in 2024 Trump will have been the nominee, if all goes as expected, three times in a row, and Biden twice. When combined with the increasing immovability of polarized Democrats and Republicans determined to support their own parties: “2024 will likely look much like 2020 and 2016.”

“There simply won’t be much movement in the aggregate,” he added. “This means that even small things on the margin could end up mattering a lot.”

Levendusky, in contrast to some others I have quoted here, suggests that despite a difficult set of issues, Biden may be stronger than expected:

In a normal year, Biden would be in real trouble. But Trump brings his own unique issues as well, especially this year. He’s a uniquely mobilizing factor for Democrats — they view him as an existential threat, and his indictments may well drag down support among key groups he needs to win back in order to secure the White House.

In the case of Trump’s indictments, Levendusky argues that “the core of Trump’s base is unlikely to be moved, but more marginal voters are a different story.” If these “wavering Republicans or independent voters are in key states like Pennsylvania, Arizona, Wisconsin, etc., that will be extremely damaging to Trump.”

Patrick Sharkey, a sociologist at Princeton who has written extensively about crime, argued in an email that Biden can make the case that he has a better record in fighting gun violence and crime than is widely recognized:

Candidate Trump will undoubtedly paint a portrait of urban America as lawless, dangerous, and disorderly, just as he did in 2016. That said, President Biden has a strong case to make that he has done more than any recent president to address gun violence.

Gun violence, Sharkey wrote,

began to skyrocket in the summer of 2020, when former President Trump was in office. Since that point, the level of violence has plateaued, and so far in 2023 the vast majority of U.S. cities have seen sharp declines in homicides and shootings.

While the Republican Party, Sharkey continued,

has railed against the Department of Justice and largely ignored the Jan. 6 assault on U.S. Capitol Police and Metropolitan Police Department officers, the Biden administration has invested additional federal funding in law enforcement while also using federal funds to support Community Violence Intervention programs, which, even if the funding was nowhere near sufficient, represents a historic expansion of the federal government’s approach to addressing violent crime. The passage of the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act is the first major federal legislation to address guns in decades.

A potential problem with Sharkey’s analysis is that in contemporary campaigns, especially those involving Donald Trump, it’s not at all clear that substance matters.

Few, if any, have put it better than retired Marine General John Kelly, Trump’s former chief of staff, who on Oct. 2 expressed to CNN his frustration over seeing his ex-boss far ahead in the competition for the nomination:

What can I add that has not already been said? A person that thinks those who defend their country in uniform, or are shot down or seriously wounded in combat, or spend years being tortured as POWs are all “suckers” because “there is nothing in it for them.” A person that did not want to be seen in the presence of military amputees because “it doesn’t look good for me.’”A person who demonstrated open contempt for a Gold Star family — for all Gold Star families — on TV during the 2016 campaign, and rants that our most precious heroes who gave their lives in America’s defense are “losers” and wouldn’t visit their graves in France.

Kelly continued:

A person who is not truthful regarding his position on the protection of unborn life, on women, on minorities, on evangelical Christians, on Jews, on working men and women. A person that has no idea what America stands for and has no idea what America is all about. … A person who admires autocrats and murderous dictators. A person that has nothing but contempt for our democratic institutions, our Constitution and the rule of law.

“There is nothing more that can be said,” Kelly concluded. “God help us.”

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