The Red State Murder Problem
Dear Commons Community,
Every news outlet from FOX to CNN to The New York Times to local newspapers has a story with attention-grabbing headlines like “US cities hit all-time murder records.” Fox News and Republicans have jumped on this and framed it as a “Democrat” problem. They blame it on Democrat’s “soft-on-crime” approach and have even referred to a New York District Attorney’s approach as “hug-a-thug.” Many news stories outside of Fox have also purported that police reform is responsible for this rise in murder and have pointed to cities like New York and Los Angeles.
There is a measure of truth to these stories. The US saw an alarming 30% increase in murder in 2020. While 2021 data is not yet complete, murder was on the rise again this past year. Some “blue” cities, like Chicago, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, have seen real and persistent increases in homicides. These cities—along with others like Los Angeles, New York, and Minneapolis—are also in places with wall-to-wall media coverage and national media interest.
But there is a large piece of the homicide story that is missing and calls into question the veracity of the right-wing obsession over homicides in Democratic cities: murder rates are far higher in Trump-voting red states than Biden-voting blue states. And sometimes, murder rates are highest in cities with Republican mayors.
But a comparison of violent crime rates in jurisdictions controlled by Democrats and Republicans tells a very different story. In fact, a new study from the center-left think tank Third Way shows that states won by Trump in the 2020 election have higher murder rates than those carried by Joe Biden. The highest murder rates, the study found, are often in conservative, rural states.
The study found that murder rates in the 25 states Trump carried in 2020 are 40% higher overall than in the states Biden won. (The report used 2020 data because 2021 data is not yet fully available.) The five states with the highest per capita murder rate — Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama and Missouri — all lean Republican and voted for Trump.
There are some examples of states Biden won in 2020 that also have high per capita murder rates, including New Mexico and Georgia, which have the seventh- and eighth-highest murder rates, respectively. And there are Trump-supporting states with low murder rates, such as Idaho and Utah. Broadly speaking, the South, and to a lesser extent the Midwest, has more murders per capita than the Northeast, interior West and West Coast, the study found.
Those findings are consistent with a pattern that has existed for decades, in which the South has had higher rates of violent crime than the nation as a whole.
Demonstrators march in Atlanta on April 14, 2021, to protest the shooting death of Daunte Wright three days earlier. (Megan Varner/Getty Images)
“We as criminologists have known this for quite some time,” Jennifer Ortiz, a professor of criminology at Indiana University Southeast, told Yahoo News. “States like Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama have historically had high crime rates.”
Criminologists say research shows higher rates of violent crime are found in areas that have low average education levels, high rates of poverty and relatively modest access to government assistance. Those conditions characterize some portions of the American South.
“They are among the poorest states in our union,” Ortiz said of the Deep South. “They have among the highest rates of child poverty. They are among the least-educated states. They are among the states with the highest levels of substance abuse. All of those factors contribute to people engaging in criminal behavior.”
“I thought that was a very good study,” Richard Rosenfeld, a professor of criminology at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and former president of the American Society of Criminology, told Yahoo News about the Third Way report. “In Republican states, states with Republican governors, crime rates tend to be higher. I’m not certain that’s related to the fact that the governor is a Republican, but it’s a fact nonetheless.”
Police and emergency personnel work on a crime scene in Waukesha, Wis., in November 2021. (Jim Vondruska/Getty Images)
(While the Third Way study divided states by presidential vote in 2020, using gubernatorial party affiliation leads to similar results because most states have recently chosen the same party for governor and for president. Based on presidential vote, eight of the 10 states with the highest murder rates lean Republican, versus seven of the top 10 if one uses the governor’s party.)
Although murder rates tend to be highest in the South, the biggest increases in 2020 were found in the Great Plains and Midwest, according to Third Way. The largest jumps were in Wyoming (91.7% higher than in 2019), South Dakota (69%), Wisconsin (63.2%), Nebraska (59.1%) and Minnesota (58.1%). Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska all voted for Trump and have Republican governors. Wisconsin and Minnesota voted for Biden and are led by Democrats.
Few large cities are governed by Republicans — only 26 of the 100 largest U.S. cities have Republican mayors — making apples-to-apples comparisons difficult. But cities that do have Republican mayors do not have lower murder rates than similarly sized Democratic-led cities, the study found.
Some experts warn against the impulse to use crime data to score quick political points.
“Being a Republican or Democratic state or city is correlated with many other issues,” David Weisburd, a professor of criminology and executive director of the Center for Evidence-Based Crime Policy at George Mason University, wrote in an email to Yahoo News. “That means that the murder rate may be due to the state being Republican, or it may be due to the fact that Republican states have many other risk factors related to crime or murder rates. Even with a very comprehensive modeling of all of these factors, it is very difficult to get a valid causal result for explaining crime rates.”
That argument cuts both ways, however. Weisburd also thinks the claims of Trump and other Republicans who say Democrats have caused a crime wave in the cities and states they govern are unfounded. “I don’t think this argument can be supported no matter which way you go,” Weisburd said.
Murder rates in the U.S. rose dramatically in 2020 from record lows, and the increases are similar across states — regardless of partisan preference. For homicides in 2020, Third Way found a 32.2% uptick in Trump-backing states versus a 30.8% rise in those that voted for Biden. Some states with large cities, such as New York and Pennsylvania, saw larger-than-average increases: New York went up 47% and Pennsylvania is up 39%. But the largest increases were in rural, Republican-led states, including Montana (+84%) and South Dakota (+81%).
The higher national murder rate is naturally causing public concern, although violent crime does remain far below its early 1990s high point. “Using the FBI data, the violent crime rate fell 49% between 1993 and 2019,” from 757 incidents per 100,000 people to 379 per 100,000, the Pew Research Center noted last November. Between 2019 and 2020, the murder rate jumped from 6 homicides per 100,000 people to 7.8 homicides per 100,000, but that was still 22% below the rate in 1991 of 10 homicides per 100,000.
Red state murder problem indeed!