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Why Biden is making moves to the middle, especially on crime

President Biden speaks at the Arnaud C. Marts Center on the campus of Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Aug. 30, 2022.
Evan Vucci
President Biden speaks at the Arnaud C. Marts Center on the campus of Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Aug. 30, 2022.

When people have been asked about their biggest concern in politics, crime hasn't popped as the "top" priority in the past year. Shortly before the 2022 midterm elections, it was inflation for Republicans and abortion rights for Democrats that consistently ranked as the top issues.

But that doesn't mean crime isn't seen as important and motivating in politics.

It's partially why, in the year before a presidential election, the Biden White House is positioning the president to the middle on this issue and a host of other issues, including immigration and the priorities reflected in his budget proposal. The budget includes popular poll-tested items, like raising taxes on the wealthy to preserve Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security and capping costs for prescription drugs.

On Thursday, the president's support helped the Senate block a Washington, D.C., crime bill that Republicans billed as too soft on crime, because, for example, it would lower the maximum prison sentences for carjackings. That's at a time when motor vehicle thefts in the district are up 109% from the previous year.

The move split Democratic senators, but most — 33 — voted with Republicans to block the bill, including the most vulnerable Democrats up for reelection in 2024.

"If we were to somehow send a message that, alright, we're going to lower the penalty on carjacking? That doesn't pass the smell test," Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., told NPR. (Warner is not up for reelection until 2026.)

Democrats did better than expected last year, largely because of extreme, Trump-aligned candidates, who didn't fare well in swing states or competitive House districts. But Republicans still took control of the chamber, albeit with only a four-seat majority.

"I think there might be a Democratic House if folks had handled the crime issue differently," Warner said.

Republicans spent millions of dollars and ran thousands of ads on crime during the midterms trying to target suburban voters

Some 15% of all ads in 2022 mentioned crime, up from just 5% in 2020, according to the ad-tracking firm AdImpact.

Nearly 1-in-5 ads funded by the National Republican Congressional Committee or the Congressional Leadership Fund focused on crime. (The NRCC is the committee that helps get Republicans elected to the House, and the Congressional Leadership Fund is the outside political action committee tied to House leadership.)

Republicans use crime as a way to hammer Democratic governance in big cities, particularly as homicides, auto thefts and other crimes — while nowhere near mid-1990s levels — have increased in many places.

While just 9% overall said crime should be a top priority of the new Congress in an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll in December, the number was slightly higher with independents — 13%.

Asked a different way, the Pew Research Center also found that just before the midterms, 6 in 10 voters overall said violent crime was "very important" to their vote. There was a big partisan split with almost three-quarters of Republicans saying it was very important, but slightly less than half of Democrats saying the same.

Almost 7 in 10 independent registered voters who lean Republican said crime was "very important," according to the survey. Independents who leaned Democratic were about the same as Democrats overall in how they feel about crime.

Politics is arguably more divided by place than race

Rural voters overwhelmingly vote Republican and urban voters are largely very Democratic. That has meant that Democrats run most big cities across the country.

Dramatic smash-and-grabs have grabbed media attention, and carjackings and homicides have become more prevalent, sometimes where those crimes typically don't take place. That can disrupt politics, particularly at the local level.

Crime is typically a baseline factor in mayoral races. In other words, when a city feels safe, other things become more important as voting issues, but when people don't feel safe, it can be a dominant issue on voters' minds.

Look at the Chicago mayor's race earlier this month. Mayor Lori Lightfoot became the first mayor ousted after one term there in 40 years — and crime was the major issue in the campaign.

In New York, Mayor Eric Adams, a former police officer, won election in 2021, and with robberies on the rise, has suggested not allowing people to wear masks in stores.

"We are putting out a clear call to all of our shops, do not allow people to enter the store without taking off their face mask," Adam said in a radio interviewthis week.

This is in a city that was very open to COVID restrictions. But New York saw nearly 4,000 more robberies in 2022 than 2021. It was the most in at least a decade.

"When you see these mask-wearing people, oftentimes it's not about being fearful of the pandemic," Adams said, "it's fearful of the police catching them for their deeds."

The White House knows this is going to be something Republicans push again in 2024, and it wants to limit the president's exposure

Former President Trump, who is running again and is at least a co-frontrunner for the nomination, decried "American carnage" in his 2017 inaugural address, and he's made clear he'll use crime again in hyperbolic ways as a way to attack Biden and Democrats.

"We need an all-out effort to defeat violent crime in America, and strongly defeat it, and be tough and be nasty and be mean if we have to," he said during a speech last year. "Our country is now a cesspool of crime. We have blood, death and suffering on a scale once unthinkable because of the Democrat Party's effort to destroy and dismantle law enforcement all throughout America."

Biden is certainly not part of a "defund the police" movement. In fact, at every turn, Biden has preached the opposite and tried to distance his party from the rhetoric. And this week, he tried to flip the script on Republicans.

"MAGA Republicans are calling for defunding the police department and defunding the FBI now," Biden said at an event before a union in Philadelphia. "That's a good one. I like that."

Democrats base that attack on the fact that Republicans stood against a $1.9 billion bill to increase funding for the Capitol Police and National Guard in light of the Jan. 6 attack.

After the FBI search of Trump's home in Florida, at which they found boxes of classified documents, right-wing Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene tweeted: "Defund the FBI."

"My budget invests in public safety," Biden said in Philadelphia. "It includes funding for more training, more support for law enforcement at a time they are expected to play many roles."

Biden has pressed House Speaker Kevin McCarthy to release a budget, something McCarthy has yet to do.

"Show me your budget," Biden said. "I'll tell you what you value."

In 2020, Biden was able to win over — or win back — many middle-of-the-road voters

He won independents in that election, but he's been struggling with the group. His approval rating with them was only 36% in the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll.

Biden clearly has work to do with persuadable voters on crime as well. An October NPR poll found Republicans had a 16-point advantage on which party people think would do a better job handling crime.

Compare that to before the 2020 election when an NPR poll found that Biden had a 4-point edge over Trump on handling the issue. That included a 13-point advantage with independents.

So perception has changed, and Biden is clearly positioning himself to get back in their good graces.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.