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‘Defund the police’ still haunts Democrats

Polling shows this intraparty fight could hurt them in the midterms

Polling shows Democrats are still losing on crime and safety, even as leaders try to move past “defund the police,” Winston writes.
Polling shows Democrats are still losing on crime and safety, even as leaders try to move past “defund the police,” Winston writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

It’s becoming increasingly clear that after the economy, crime is a hot-button issue driving voter sentiment in the lead-up to the November elections. But despite voter concern, Democrats continue to be divided over the controversial “defund the police” mantra that has grabbed headlines for the past two years, and it’s beginning to hurt their prospects for the fall elections.

The mixed messaging of party leaders versus the call to defund by progressives, especially extreme comments by members of the Squad, has become a costly roadblock to retaining the House as voters lose confidence in Democrats’ ability to address rising violence across the country.

Even a cursory look at statements by Democratic leaders and radical backbenchers opposed to increased funding of police explains the party’s dilemma.

On Feb. 13, George Stephanopoulos raised the issue of Rep. Cori Bush’s statements calling for defunding the police during an interview with Speaker Nancy Pelosi. “With all due respect in the world to Cori Bush,” she replied, “that is not the position of the Democratic Party.” 

Pelosi then declared, “Defund the police is dead.”

Two weeks later, in his State of the Union address, President Biden called for increased funding for police: “We should all agree: The answer is not to defund the police. The answer is to fund the police. Fund them. Fund them.” 

Apparently, Squad member Bush didn’t get the message. In a tweet after the speech, she said, “With all due respect, Mr. President, you didn’t mention saving Black lives once in this speech. All our country has done is given more funding to police. The result? 2021 set a record for fatal police shootings. Defund the police. Invest in our communities.”

A month later, a gunman shot up a New York subway train, and an inconvenient 2019 letter from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Jerrold Nadler and other liberal New York House members resurfaced. The letter to then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo opposed a plan to put 500 new Metropolitan Transportation Authority officers in the subways to reduce crime. 

But AOC was having none of it. She and her fellow members wrote that the MTA funding for increased police presence in the subways would be better spent on “desperately needed resources” like “subway, bus, maintenance, and service improvements,” telling Cuomo, “The subway system is now safer than before.” 

Last week, Rep. Abigail Spanberger called defunding the police “a terrible idea,” while a Politico story said, “As the midterm elections pick up, Democrats are calling for more police funding and attempting to co-opt traditionally Republican talking points on crime.”

“Defund the police” may no longer be the position of the Democratic Party, but when Cori Bush, AOC or any member of the Squad weighs in on any issue, the Twittersphere lights up like a cop car in hot pursuit. It seems the media can’t get enough of the Squad, and polling shows that this intraparty fight over the issue of policing and crime has not only become a major headache for Pelosi but is also taking a toll on the Democrats’ credibility.

When the electorate was asked in the Winning the Issues (WTI) February survey if they believed that we need to defund the police, only 21 percent believed the statement, while 64 percent did not. Independents were even more adamant that defunding the police was a bad idea, coming in at an overwhelming 12 percent for and 70 percent against. 

Despite Biden and Pelosi’s efforts to stem the bleeding by offering up more funding to stop gun violence and invest in community policing, the WTI research shows that Democrats are losing the issue, with more voters believing that the Democratic Party supports defunding the police than not by a margin of 48 percent to 34 percent. 

There are three main reasons for the Democrats’ troubles on this issue. First, there is widespread recognition of just how serious rising crime is becoming, with 7 out of 10 voters believing that across America, violent crime is escalating.

Six out of 10 voters agree with the statement that “families, communities and small business are being endangered and experiencing the devastating effects of rhetoric about defunding the police and police department budget cuts at the hands of politicians.” 

These views extend across party, ideology, age and region, making a concept like defunding the police totally out of tune with most voters who oppose it by a 3-to-1 margin.  

There’s a second reason for the Democrats’ weakness on the crime issue. The president and other Democrats have tried to have it both ways — trying to pose as supporters of the police while only reluctantly, if at all, acknowledging that crime is a major problem.

On the White House website list of priorities, crime doesn’t even make the list. The White House’s lack of acknowledgment and often dismissive rhetoric about crime, particularly in cities with progressive mayors and prosecutors, has led directly to its weak standing on the issue. 

As a result, when voters were asked in the March survey whether they believed Democrats would focus on law enforcement efforts to deal with violent offenders, they were split, with 44 percent believing they would and 43 percent believing they wouldn’t. Independents were even more skeptical, with 36 percent believing and 46 percent not believing. 

In contrast, voters by a 61 percent to 27 percent margin believed that Republicans would stand with law enforcement in their efforts to ensure the safety of our communities and the protection of America’s families and children. 

Not surprisingly, Democrats trail on the handling of the crime and safety issue by 12 points (48 percent favoring Republicans, 36 percent favoring Democrats) and among independents by 13 points (42 percent-29 percent, with 29 percent undecided). The Democratic Party’s silence about threats to safety has left Democrats supporting a policy position that voters find alienating. 

Finally, with police officers, Democrats have chosen the wrong group to vilify. The police have a very favorable brand image (72 percent favorable, 20 percent unfavorable in the March WTI survey). Congressional Democrats have a negative brand at 44 percent favorable, 49 percent unfavorable. By affiliating themselves with the defund the police movement, they are seen by voters as opposing a very positive group of public servants who are well liked and supported by the electorate. 

By trying to straddle the fence on crime and safety, Biden, Pelosi and Democratic members fearing primaries have been unwilling to take on their anti-police progressives. If the trend continues, this issue will haunt Democrats this November and for a long time to come.  

David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, as well as serving as an election analyst for CBS News.

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