The question in the title of this post is promoted by this recent Politico piece by Joshua Zeitz headlined “‘Law and Order’ has Worked for the GOP Before. This Crime Boom Might be Different.” I recommend the piece in full, and here are a few excerpts:
In the 1970s and 1980s, Republican candidates successfully used violent crime as an issue to attract white voters. Fused with concerns over the economy, busing and neighborhood integration, “law-and-order” politics dislodged millions of working- and middle-class white voters from their former home in the Democratic Party. No politician did it better than Richard Nixon, whose White House staff aimed, in their own words, “to orient the Silent Majority toward issues other than foreign policy (e.g.: inflation, crime, law and order, etc.) and then to increase support for the President’s foreign and domestic proposals.”
But 2021 is not 1971. Even allowing for the public’s very real perception of violent crime as a top national priority, the nation’s political demography has changed dramatically over the last half century. Then, many working-class and middle-class voters lived in cities or inner-ring suburbs where crime was not a hypothetical concern; it was an everyday reality. By contrast, today most voters the GOP hopes to claw back inhabit increasingly diverse suburban areas where crime is not an everyday reality. Polls show that while most voters believe crime is on the rise, they don’t believe it threatens their neighborhoods.
It’s true that crime might function as a mechanism to motivate the conservative base. But to move voters from the Democratic to the Republican column, it will need to capture the independent voters who swung from Trump to Biden in the last election. And here the historical analogy breaks down….
[V]ast demographic changes over the past 50 years have re-sorted the American population. Today’s swing voters are affluent suburbanites, not working-class residents of transitional urban neighborhoods. The places where violent crime is on the rise — namely, cities — are deep blue and unlikely to change. The places where violent crime is not on the rise — namely, suburbs — are the new political battleground….
Of course, none of this is to say that some of the urban voters affected by today’s rise in crime might not be up for grabs. Studies show that low-income non-white families are far more exposed to violent crime and more likely to perceive it as an immediate threat. Republicans have made inroads with Latino voters, and in recent months, it has become clear that last year’s racial justice awakening obscured a more complicated reality about the Black electorate, which is diverse — not a monolith — but generally concerned about crime and welcoming of a greater police presence on the streets if and when that presence is protective of their safety….
The 2022 election cycle is still in the distant future, and in politics, things change quickly. Judging by history and by polling, however, crime may not provide the winning message that the GOP is looking for. Yesterday’s swing voters are not today’s swing voters, and in 2021, “law and order” doesn’t mean the same thing it did in 1971.
This article is focused on demographics to rightly observe that the politics of crime and punishment has evolved over the last half-century. But I also think there is a lot more to the story of the changing political landscape, ranging from bipartisan disaffinity for (some parts of) the war on drugs and much greater public awareness — especially among younger Americans and libertarian-leaning conservatives — of the racial and economic impacts of mass incarceration and collateral consequences. What all this means for elections in the 2020s remains to be seen, but nobody should forget that Donald Trump ran in 2016 on a “law and order” message and then signed a major federal criminal justice reform bill into law just two years later. Put simply, in this century, I think both the politics and the practice of crime and punishment are quite nuanced and often quite unpredictable.