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

Police tape cordons off a street in Waukesha, Wis., after a vehicle plowed into a Christmas parade on Nov. 21, 2021. A video clip from the incident is used in one of the 2022 election ads that highlight violent crime. (AP) Police tape cordons off a street in Waukesha, Wis., after a vehicle plowed into a Christmas parade on Nov. 21, 2021. A video clip from the incident is used in one of the 2022 election ads that highlight violent crime. (AP)

Police tape cordons off a street in Waukesha, Wis., after a vehicle plowed into a Christmas parade on Nov. 21, 2021. A video clip from the incident is used in one of the 2022 election ads that highlight violent crime. (AP)

Tom Kertscher
By Tom Kertscher September 28, 2022

If Your Time is short

  • Although 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.

  • Experts said the ads are meant to induce fear, which can be a strong motivating factor for people to vote.

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, 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.

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," though 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 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 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, 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%). 

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 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 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 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 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."

RELATED: Fact-checking ads in the 2022 election campaigns

RELATED: PolitiFact Wisconsin: High probability that Barnes plan to end cash bail would have kept parade suspect in jail

RELATED: In Pennsylvania Senate race, Mehmet Oz distorts John Fetterman’s stance on releasing prison inmates

RELATED: Ad dissects John Fetterman’s 2013 armed chase of a Black man

RELATED: NC trooper wrong about violent crime hitting record high

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Our Sources

YouTube, J.D. Vance for Senate "This Street" post, Sept. 8, 2022

Email, J.D. Vance campaign press secretary Luke Schroeder, Sept. 21, 2022

Axios, "Ohio's homicide rate highest in decades," Oct. 12, 2021

Politico, "How Democrats are trying to counter a wave of GOP attacks on crime," Sept. 20, 2022

Interview, Max Kapustin, assistant professor in the Department of Economics and the Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy at Cornell University; affiliate and former senior research director at the University of Chicago Crime Lab and Education Lab, Sept. 26, 2022

Interview, Candace McCoy, professor in the doctoral program in criminal justice at City University of New York Graduate Center, Sept. 26, 2022

The New York Times, "A Shift in Crime," Sept. 23, 2022

PolitiFact, "NC trooper wrong about violent crime hitting record high," Aug. 23, 2022

PolitiFact, "In Pennsylvania Senate race, Mehmet Oz distorts John Fetterman’s stance on releasing prison inmates," July 21, 2022

PolitiFact, "Oz distorts Fetterman’s position of ending mandatory life sentences for certain murders," Aug. 3, 2022

PolitiFact, "GOP group misses mark with claim prison population reduction would require fast release of criminals," Sept. 21, 2022, "Atlanta's crime rate is worse than Chicago -- for certain crimes," posted July 27, 2022; updated July 28, 2022 

Email, Raphael Warnock campaign spokesperson Rachel Petri, Sept. 22, 2022

Federal Bureau of Investigation Crime Data Explorer, "Trend of Violent Crime from 1985 to 2020, Ohio Rate of Violent Crime Offenses by Population," accessed Sept. 17, 2022

Hart Research Associates/Public Opinion Strategies, "NBC News Survey," (page 15) September 2022

NBC News, "Poll: Abortion, Trump boost midterm prospects for Democrats," Sept. 18, 2022

NBC News, "Abortion leads as top issue in campaign ads for last two weeks," Sept. 16, 2022

NBC News, "Tiffany Smiley launches new crime ad in Wash. Senate race," Sept. 20, 2022

Google Ad Transparency, Senate Leadership Fund Mandela Barnes ad, Sept. 13, 2022

YouTube, Wisconsin Truth PAC "What Could Go Wrong 30s" ad, Sept. 17, 2022

YouTube, Senate Leadership Fund "SLF: ‘Judgement’ 30s - WI" ad on Mandela Barnes, Sept. 21, 2022

PolitiFact Wisconsin, "High probability that Barnes plan to end cash bail would have kept parade suspect in jail," Sept. 22, 2022

YouTube, Smiley for Washington "Cup of Coffee" post, Sept. 20, 2022 

Meta, Michigan Freedom Fund ad targeting Gretchen Whitmer, ran Aug. 25 to 31, 2022

Meta, 34N22 ad targeting Raphael Warnock, ran Aug. 22 to Sept. 13, 2022

Meta, Washington State Republican Party crime ad, started running Sept. 21, 2022

Twitter, Lee Zeldin tweet, Sept. 14, 2022

Police Department City of New York, "CompStat Report Covering the Week 9/12/2022 Through 9/18/2022," accessed Sept. 21, 2022

Time, "U.S. Crime Is Still Dramatically Higher Than Before the Pandemic," published July 28, 2022; updated July 29, 2022

Council on Criminal Justice, "Pandemic, Social Unrest, and Crime in U.S. Cities: Mid-Year 2022 Update," July 22, 2022

USA Today, "Homicides down but violent crime increased in major US cities, midyear survey says," Sept. 11, 2022 

Major Cities Chiefs Association, "Violent Crime Survey – National Totals Midyear Comparison 1, January 1 to June 30, 2022, and 2021," Aug. 2, 2022

Email, Laura Cooper, executive director, Major Cities Chiefs Association, Sept. 22, 2022

Major Cities Chiefs Association, "MCCA Releases Crime And Gun Violence Reports," Aug. 5, 2022

YouTube, CLFSuperPAC "Vote Against Josh Riley: Extreme. Liberal. Dangerous" ad, Sept. 21, 2022 

CNN, "Fact check: How three new Republican attack ads deceive on policing and crime," Sept. 16, 2022 

The Guardian, "Fox News and Republicans try to shift attention to crime as midterms loom," Sept. 16, 2022 

Washington Post, "GOP strategy elevates clashes over crime, race in midterm battlegrounds," Sept. 25, 2022

Wisconsin Bureau of Justice Information and Analysis, "UCR Offense Data," accessed Sept. 20, 2022

Email, Gillian Drummond, communications director, Wisconsin Department of Justice, Sept. 22, 2022

Twitter, Mandela Barnes tweet, July 12, 2018

Twitter, Mandela Barnes tweet, Oct. 21, 2019

Wisconsin State Journal, "25 Wisconsin prisoners graduate with associate degrees through growing program," Jan. 22, 2022

Fox News, "Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes, Senate candidate, supported cutting prison population in half," Sept. 8, 2022

Fox 6 News, "Community group hopes to slash number of state prison inmates," Feb. 20, 2012

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Email, Mandela Barnes campaign spokesperson Maddy McDaniel, Sept. 22, 2022

Email, Jen Goodman, Kathy Hochul campaign spokesperson, Sept. 22, 2022

Interview, Dan Gardner, Canadian author who specializes in psychology and decision making whose books include "Risk: The Science And Politics Of Fear," Sept. 21, 2022

Email, Karlyn Bowman, American Enterprise Institute distinguished senior fellow emeritus, whose specialties include public opinion and elections, Sept. 21, 2022

YouTube, Val Demings "Chief Val Demings Protect and Serve" ad, June 12, 2022

Meta, Val Demings ad, Aug. 23 to 24, 2022

New York Times, "G.O.P. Redoubles Efforts to Tie Democrats to High Crime Rates," published Sept. 26, 2022; updated Sept. 27, 2022

YouTube, John Fetterman "Sheriff" ad, Sept. 26, 2022

Email, Julia Azari, a political science professor at Marquette University, Sept. 28, 2022

Email, University of Nebraska sociologist Lisa Kort-Butler, Sept. 27, 2022

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