Happy Election Day! While You Are Waiting...
Some thoughts on crime messaging and ESG.
It’s Election Day, and there isn’t a lot to talk about on Election Day before the polls close. So I have a few suggestions to fill your time while waiting for results. One is to check out the latest episode of Serious Trouble, my podcast with Ken White, if you haven’t already heard it.
I also think you should read, as something of a pre-mortem, this memo from Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg about the party’s messaging difficulties on crime. It’s quite damning and calls for a large course correction.
The whole memo is worthwhile, but here’s a key bit, with emphasis added:
I was asked repeatedly by colleagues and campaigning Democrats, “What should we be saying on crime and when I’m attacked for ‘defunding the police’?” To be honest, Democrats were in such terrible shape on crime at this late point, I said, speak as little as possible or mumble. Nothing they’ve said up until now was reassuring and helpful…
When Trump put the spotlight on high crime rates in Democratic-run cities, we retorted with the high crime rates in Republican-led cities. But where was the worry about community safety? Where were our plans to address crime? We were stymied by our rightful outrage over the repeated examples of police abuse and need to bring reforms. Yet if you ask our own voters, as I did after the election, they think our plan was “defund the police.”
Voters and our base hated the idea of defunding the police… From early 2020 onward, Democratic leaders showed no interest as far as voters could tell in addressing crime or making communities safer… The Democrats had so little credibility on crime that any message I tested this year against the Republicans ended up losing us votes, even messages that voters previously liked.
In a mid-October poll, I was able to test a crime message that got heard… the message gains even more support and shifts which party you trust better on crime when the Democrats call out the small minority in the House who supported defunding the police and voted against all efforts to fund law enforcement. This message had some of the strongest results in the survey, with the positive reaction outscoring the negative by 16 points.
What’s the Democratic message Greenberg tested that he found finally worked? It involves explicitly calling out Democrats on the fringes for being soft on crime. Here’s his script:
Too many in my party thought it was not okay to talk about the growing violent crime problem in our community. They focused only on the police. From day one, we needed to rush more police, not defund in any way. Get criminals into jail. They weren't listening to you. There are less than five members in the House who are for defunding. Five. They are extreme and don't speak for the Democratic Party. The Democrats in the Congress are mainstream, and they voted to fund the Capitol police, ICE, and to increase the number of first responders in your communities.
This message is needed as a corrective because Democrats’ dominant rhetorical approach on crime for the last two years has been to engage in what Ruy Teixeira calls the “Fox News fallacy,” or “the idea that if Fox News… criticizes the Democrats for X then there must be absolutely nothing to X and the job of Democrats is to assert that loudly and often.”
Voters are concerned about crime. Democrats have retorted that crime concerns are overblown — that crime is way lower than it was in the ‘90s (for what other policy area would “hey, it was worse in the ‘90s” be considered a sound political argument?); or that the rise in crimes is just murders — an argument that not only sounds ridiculous but also doesn’t even appear to be true anymore if you use the most recent data.
The obvious message these talking points send is: Democrats don’t take crime seriously.
You also hear a lot of “nobody defunded the police.” People making this argument will note that police budgets in most major cities are higher in nominal terms than they were pre-pandemic, often citing this ABC News analysis that examined budgets at 109 large police departments. But with cumulative inflation of 15.6% over the last three years, that means real police spending levels declined at about 80% of the departments ABC considered. Police are also often less productive than they used to be — for example, arrests are down in New York compared to pre-pandemic even though crime rates are up.
As I’ve written, degraded service quality is a problem with all kinds of public sector functions right now, not just policing, but it is true that the public is getting less policing service than it used to. If you deny that, people will just feel like you’re gaslighting them — that they’re seeing a problem and you not only don’t care about it, you don’t even see it.
June 2020 was a moment of mass national hysteria and a lot of people said and did things they now regret. Remember this nonsense at the Washington Post? But it’s not going to cut it for Democrats to try to memory-hole the “defund” fad. People associate Democrats with the defund idea. If Democrats want to lose that stain, they need to acknowledge what voters know — some Democrats advocated this idea — and repudiate the Democrats who did so.
Democrats often seem desperate to avoid criticizing anyone to their left. It’s considered “hippie punching.” Well, if you need to punch a hippie to win an election, you should punch the hippie, without hesitation.
Finally, for something completely off election news, I have an observation below on ESG (environmental, social and governance) investing.
Relax, conservatives: Markets mostly do work.
There’s an emergent backlash to the trend of ESG investing: that is, investor efforts to push companies toward environment, social and governance goals, in addition to generating value for shareholders. Roughly, there are two kinds of critiques of ESG: