Debra Kowalski, a 49-year-old nurse in Bucks County, Pa., has been pleading with her elderly parents to move out of Philadelphia, especially after a delivery driver was shot and killed last month a few blocks from their home.
In Scottsdale, Ariz., Michael Navas, a landscape contractor, says he believes “third-class” people are destroying the city with graffiti and burglaries, a phenomenon that feels more acute than ever.
And in Menomonee Falls, Wis., Deb Whittenberger, 66, already knows what she wants for Christmas this year: a Ring doorbell camera, which she hopes will assuage her gnawing fears of break-ins in her suburban town near Milwaukee.
Her main motivating issues in this year’s election, she said, are “crime, security, safety.”
Though polls show that voters’ biggest concerns are about the economy and inflation, many Americans — especially more conservative voters like these, but also moderates and liberals — say they are gripped by worries over crime and disorder. Even though national crime trends are mixed, these voters have seen reports of homicide spikes in places like Memphis, Milwaukee, Albuquerque and Jacksonville, Fla., and have heard from friends and neighbors who have been victims of car thefts or muggings.
In many cases, their anxieties stem not from experiencing serious crime, but from seeing homeless encampments, or finding a syringe or human waste on the sidewalk, or reading accounts in their neighborhood social networks of vandalism on a local bike path.
These concerns are generally benefiting Republican candidates, who have bluntly blamed Democratic elected officials for a surge in violent crime in many cities that began during the pandemic and has yet to fully subside. Conservative news outlets like Fox have also focused heavily on crime, as has local TV news. In interviews, voters criticized liberals’ efforts to eliminate cash bail, decriminalize marijuana and decrease funding for police departments, even if those policies have not been put in place where they live.
Many independent voters have warmed to Republican candidates across the country who are emphasizing crime and public safety in their closing messages before Election Day. Republican plans to curb crime generally consist of hiring more police officers and tightening border security, but most of the party’s candidates focus far more on assailing progressive criminal justice policies or the “defund the police” movement, which most Democratic candidates have rejected.
At a rally on Tuesday evening for Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican Senate candidate in Pennsylvania, speakers at a fire station in Bensalem Township, just over the county line from Philadelphia, half-joked that they should build a “border wall” to keep out crime.
Dr. Oz spoke very little about his own crime-fighting proposals — increasing penalties for certain offenses and offering incentives for police recruitment, among other things — and concentrated instead on arguing that Democrats wanted to “release people convicted of murder” and were not properly supporting police officers.
“Let police do their jobs,” he said. “We don’t want to be part of a social experiment.”
While the perception of a crime wave is broadly shared, the reality this year is especially hard to pin down.
Because of a change in the way the Federal Bureau of Investigation is compiling and tracking national crime statistics, more than a third of the nation’s law enforcement agencies, including those in some of the biggest U.S. cities, did not submit crime data to the F.B.I.’s statistics collection program for 2021.
As a result, said Richard Rosenfeld, a professor emeritus of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, “the most basic question we can ask about crime — is it going up or down — can’t be answered with the F.B.I. data.”
After a jarring spike in homicides and gun assaults in cities and towns across the country over the first two years of the pandemic, the number of those crimes seems to have started declining this year, Prof. Rosenfeld said. On the other hand, he said, the number of property crimes like robbery and larceny, which had been falling for years and then plummeted during the pandemic, has been rising again.
Criminology experts pointed out that in most parts of the country, crime rates were still substantially below the levels of the early 1990s despite the recent increases, a dynamic that is reflected by the most recent Bureau of Justice Statistics National Crime Victimization Survey.
Across the country, gun violence is heavily concentrated in certain economically struggling neighborhoods. And even in cities with serious gun violence problems, most residents are not living in the communities where that violence is a daily reality. In those places, crime has been an urgent matter for years.
“We already know that,” said Jonathan Wilson, a gun violence researcher in Philadelphia who uses a wheelchair after having been shot in a barbershop in 2011.
Democratic officials and candidates have vowed to address crime with strategies like larger budgets for police departments, as Mayor Lori Lightfoot has done in Chicago, while supporting small-scale violence prevention groups. They have also pleaded for gun control measures at the state and federal level that they say would produce a drop in gun violence.
Plans laid out by House and Senate Republicans would provide grants for local and state police departments to hire more officers, or offer recruiting and retention bonuses for 200,000 of them. They have also discussed withholding federal money from cities that “defund the police” (none have), and have circulated proposals to “crack down” on prosecutors whom lawmakers deem to be too lenient.
Republicans in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives moved last month to impeach Philadelphia’s progressive district attorney, Larry Krasner, charging that he had been “derelict in his obligations” to prosecute crimes in the city struggling with gun violence. But Mr. Wilson rejected the notion that there was any connection between Democratic leadership and high rates of violent crime, pointing out that gun violence was a problem in places governed by Republicans, too.
Year after year, large percentages of Americans have told pollsters they think crime is getting worse, no matter what the underlying numbers say. Now, growing numbers of Democrats, Republicans and independents are all saying that crime is getting worse in their own communities.
Republicans express the most alarm, but 51 percent of independent voters said there was more crime in their areas now than there was a year ago, according to a Gallup survey. As for the country as a whole, some 95 percent of Republicans think crime is worse now than a year ago, a view shared by 61 percent of Democrats.
And even if most Americans are insulated from the frequent shootings and robberies that plague many poor urban neighborhoods, they now say they feel more personally vulnerable to getting murdered, mugged, burglarized or sexually assaulted. The share of people who said they were worried about a child being harmed at school soared 13 percentage points from a year ago, probably reflecting the anxious ripples of the Uvalde elementary school massacre and other school shootings.
Ms. Whittenberger, a self-employed crafter who sells handmade aprons, said she worries about shootings in nearby Milwaukee — “every night, another killing,” she said. But in her daily routines, she is also noting small changes, both close to home and far from Menomonee Falls, that suggest to her that American life is fraying.
When she shops at her local grocery store, Ms. Whittenberger said, she can smell marijuana on the clothes of fellow customers as she passes them in the aisles. And reports of thefts in California cities, which she sees reported on Fox News, drive her mad with fear and rage.
“Is any place in this country safe?” she said. “I don’t think so.”
Crime has become a dominant issue in the New York governor’s race, a shift in focus that has helped make an election that Democrats took for granted — it’s been two decades since the state last elected a Republican governor — into an increasingly competitive race.
The Republican candidate, Representative Lee Zeldin, has focused his campaign for months on a rise in crime in New York City in particular. He has attacked the Democratic incumbent, Gov. Kathy Hochul, for not going far enough in tightening state laws that limit the use of bail to serious offenses, and has vowed to immediately fire the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin Bragg, who was elected in 2021 after promising to stop prosecuting low-level crimes.
Tony Smith, who lives in Mount Kisco, a suburb north of New York City, said that he believed Ms. Hochul and Mr. Bragg were too lenient on criminals. He feels particularly uneasy on the New York City subway, which he sometimes rides to get to New York Mets home games in Queens.
“I’m a big guy,” Mr. Smith said. “I can fend for myself. But you know what? I’m looking both ways now.”
Across the country in Arizona, Dave Abramovitz, 55, did not vote for former President Donald J. Trump, but he is now enthusiastically supporting Kari Lake, Arizona’s Republican candidate for governor, who has put crime and safety concerns at the heart of her campaign as she appeals to suburbanites in places like Scottsdale. She has promised to “blow up” smuggling tunnels under the southwest border to stop the flow of illicit drugs from Mexico, and to authorize Arizona National Guard troops to detain migrants.
“Her first order of business is to declare a state of emergency at the border,” Mr. Abramovitz said. “Our federal government knows and doesn’t do anything.”
In mailers, television ads and debates, Ms. Lake and other Republican candidates in Arizona blame Democrats for record numbers of illegal border crossings, which they say have unleashed a host of public-safety threats across Arizona, from fentanyl smuggling to human trafficking to cartel violence.
Migration experts have said that undocumented migrants are less likely than American citizens to commit crimes, and that much of the fentanyl flowing into the country is being smuggled through legal ports of entry, by American citizens.
Not mentioned in these attacks is the fact that Republicans have controlled both the governorship and the legislature in Arizona for the past 12 years.
Ms. Lake often accuses Democratic-run cities like Phoenix or Tucson of failing to support the police and of coddling criminals. But her attacks are less about data than about stoking voters’ feelings of unease. As Ms. Lake made a lunchtime appearance at an open-air pub in Scottsdale, several supporters said they felt less safe in downtown Phoenix, or when getting gas after dark, than they did before the pandemic.
Isaac Glover, an 18-year-old planning to cast his first vote for conservatives up and down the ballot in Arizona, said he had been so rattled by a shooting and carjacking near the Taco Bell where he works that he decided to start saving up for a bulletproof vest.
“You can get shot at any point in time,” he said. “We weren’t having this kind of crime in 2019.”
Arizona’s crime rates, which historically have been higher than the national average, did rise during the pandemic, and Phoenix has had a troubling spike in homicides this year. But other crimes, including rape, robbery, burglary and theft, are actually almost unchanged or down from their prepandemic levels, according to Phoenix police data.
While violent crime in most places is far below its historical peak, there are cities like Philadelphia and Milwaukee where homicides have recently set records. The trend has meant that these cities and their suburbs, which are already playing a critical role in races for the U.S. Senate and control of Congress, have figured prominently in campaign rhetoric.
In downtown Waukesha, Wis., on Tuesday, Dan Mulder, 72, said he planned to vote Republican in the state’s hotly contested races for governor and senator. He cited the violent rampage last year at the town’s Christmas parade — a man drove his S.U.V. through the crowd at high speed, killing six people and injuring dozens — as an example of what has given the Republicans’ anti-crime messages particular resonance.
“It’s made it more personal and more direct,” he said. “I think to have something that horrific happen, it’s going to stick with people for a while.”
Michael Gold, Brittany Kriegstein and Neil Vigdor contributed reporting.