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Scaring voters to the polls? How political ads use crime statistics to try to sway voters

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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 way.

The ads — in races for governor, US Senate and US House — aim to trigger fear. They typically contain three elements: news reports of violent events; crime statistics; and blame cast on the Democratic candidate.

One 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 might.”

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. On Sept. 26, The New York Times reported, 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 increased significantly since the COVID-19 pandemic’s onset in 2020.

“The murder rate is still 30 percent above its 2019 level,” although murders in major cities and shootings nationwide have decreased this year, compared with the same period in 2021, The New York Times reported.

In 70 large US 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 traumatized.”

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, US 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%).

Governors play 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 local issue.

One ad attacked a Georgia US 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 and professional 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 Chicago.”

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. However, 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 Wisconsin.

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 dropped.

But the ad misleads about Barnes. He has helped reduce the state’s prison population by half, over several years, but not by releasing half of the inmates.

Instead, he advocated for prison education programs to reduce recidivism and for sending drug offenders to rehabilitation rather than prison.

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 work?

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 elections.

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 ‘them.'”

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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