Crime and public safety have taken center stage in many midterm races nationwide, from Wisconsin to Pennsylvania to New York. Republicans are repeating a page from their 2020 playbook by ramping up ads accusing Democrats of being soft on crime. The GOP spent nearly $40 million on crime-related messaging in September alone, and ad spending tends to be a good indication of what candidates and their backers think will sway voters, NPR reports. The messaging taps into a fear clearly shared by many voters, even if it's not their top or only concern. Some three-quarters of respondents to a POLITICO/Morning Consult poll said they thought violent crime is increasing nationally, and 88 percent said it is either increasing or staying the same in their own communities.
Are crime rates in the U.S. skyrocketing, as some claim? "We don't really have a common definition of what crime means, when you ask that question," says Jeff Asher, a New Orleans-based data analyst who specializes in crime statistics. The FBI's annual crime report for 2021 says violent crime reports decreased by one percent from the previous year. The report is also incomplete, as only 63 percent of police departments submitted data, and New York City and Los Angeles were not among them. When most people think about crime, he said, "what they're really thinking of is murder and gun violence, and murder makes up 0.2% of all big-picture crimes every year. But it's the crime with the most societal harm. It's the thing that people tend to care about the most." The data informing federal crime reports is "both reliable and unreliable," according to Asher. "We've really got this change in murder, which almost happened overnight and has been sustained for two years, and we're not able to measure progress against it or regression against it," he says, "Because at this really inopportune moment, our data collection has suddenly gotten much worse." Absent complete data, Asher says, "We get a lot of politicians that are saying a lot of things that frequently are based on anecdote or sort of the vibes of the moment ... a lot of misinformation and poor decisions being made in the name of data-less arguments."