ST. LOUIS — President Joe Biden has seen his approval ratings sink like a stone over the last year. That’s especially the case when it comes to crime, where recent polls show only one in three Americans approve of the administration’s handling of rising crime rates nationwide. While state and local policies may have more to do with crime in your neighborhood, a new study explains why Americans continue to place the blame on the White House.
Researchers from Washington University in St. Louis say a lot of the disapproval has a direct connection to both anxiety about crime and a person’s race. Specifically, their study found key differences in who Americans from different backgrounds blame for various societal problems — including crime. Moreover, study authors found that politicians who fail to take accountability for those issues and their unsuccessful policies suffer significantly more when voters head to the polls.
Perception is (political) reality
The team used Gallup survey data from 2000 to 2019 during their study, spanning the presidencies of Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump. Results show objective measures of state and local crime did not influence presidential approval.
Instead, it was a person’s perception of the issue that led them to either approve or disapprove of the sitting president. The study finds “anxiety about crime” — or a person’s belief that crime is getting worse — strongly influences how someone views the President of the United States.
Americans worried about the state of crime in their communities were more likely to disapprove of the president and his handling of the situation. However, that anxiety also split along racial and socioeconomic lines as well. The team found whites, those with a higher level of education, and those with higher incomes were less likely to worry about crime.
Racial divide fueling a political divide on crime?
Study authors also discovered that Caucasians and Black Americans disagree on who’s to blame for rising crime, even when both groups think there’s a problem.
Black respondents who were anxious about crime were much more likely to disapprove of Republican presidents (Bush and Trump) than Democratic presidents (Clinton and Obama). In fact, Black Americans were 19 percent less likely to approve of Republican presidents despite feeling the same anxiety during the presidencies of Democrats as well.
Conversely, white respondents anxious about crime were more likely to disapprove of Democratic leaders in comparison to Republican presidents. White Americans were 14 percent less likely to support a Democrat in office if they were anxious about crime in their community.
Researchers believe a lot of this comes down to messaging from the White House, including a public perception that Democrats are “soft” on crime and the perpetrators who commit these acts.
“While whites may view Republican promises of ‘law and order’ and ‘tough-on crime’ policies as reassuring, Black Americans take a different view,” says Andrew Reeves, a professor of political science, in a university release.
“For Black Americans, this policy approach may evoke feelings of persecution, threats to civil rights and biased treatment by the criminal justice system. Blacks may be more likely to link concern over crime to failed or misguided policies by Republican presidents.”
Taking responsibility changes public perception
Whether the problem lies in the administration’s policies or not, the study finds voters want their leaders to own up to their mistakes — or else. Presidents face blame for all sorts of national problems, from the economy, to war, to crime. However, Reeves’ team finds taking ownership of an issue — even when the results are bad — leads to fewer Americans disapproving of the commander-in-chief’s performance.
On the other hand, when presidents appear to shift the blame for these problems, voters perceive it as a policy failure and take their frustrations out in the voting booth.
In the current political environment, researchers say Republicans hold a significant advantage over Democrats because of a perception that the party is “tough on crime.” Despite that, study authors believe there’s more than a simple messaging problem which is steering the Biden administration’s sinking approval numbers.
“Like so much in American politics, race shapes perceptions of which party is superior at addressing crime,” says Benjamin Noble, a political science PhD student at Washington University.
“Democratic solutions that are labeled ‘soft’ by white Americans may be seen as attempts to reform a system that has disproportionately affected communities of color by Blacks.”
The finding appear in the journal Public Opinion Quarterly.