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:

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

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

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?

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

“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:

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

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:

According to Solomon,

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 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,

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:

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 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:

Gun violence, Sharkey wrote,

While the Republican Party, Sharkey continued,

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:

Kelly continued:

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

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