The writer advised Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign and served in the administration of George W Bush
If this week marks a turning point in the 2020 presidential race, it may owe as much to events in Wisconsin as the virtual Republican National Convention. Trailing in the polls, incumbent Donald Trump was already counting on a message about the threat of civil disorder to help him reach undecided and moderate voters.
But events have conspired to give him an unexpected boost. Last Sunday’s shooting of Jacob Blake, who is black, by police in Kenosha, Wisconsin has sparked a wave of protests in this sleepy Midwestern city of fewer than 100,000 residents. Several nights of unrest saw buildings set on fire, fatal gunfire and scuffles among protesters and counter-protesters.
This mayhem amplifies Mr Trump’s law and order message and poses an uncomfortable challenge for Democrat Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris. Since the May killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer, there have been violent protests in at least two dozen large cities, and homicides are sharply up in many of them.
Yet many Democratic mayors, city council members and progressive protest movements are calling for cuts in police department funding and personnel. In New York, Mayor Bill DeBlasio disbanded the city’s plainclothes unit that tracked down violent criminals and illegal firearms.
Shootings soared in the weeks after the disbanding and Mr Trump called Mr DeBlasio a “communist” who “got rid of some of the most talented policemen . . . Look at the shootings.” National Association of Police Organizations president Michael McHale followed up at this week’s convention with “Chaos results when failed officials . . . make the conscious decision not to support law enforcement.”
In a new Pew poll, 59 per cent of voters said violent crime was “very important” to how they will vote, making it a top five issue. It wasn’t in the top 10 in 2016. And a recent survey in Wisconsin, a swing state, found that support for Black Lives Matter has declined over the summer even as there is rising concern about violence.
Meanwhile, national gun purchases are surging. The FBI conducted a record 3.9m background checks for firearms purchases in June. A year earlier, there were just 2.3m. Some 40 per cent of this year’s firearms purchasers were first-time buyers. A gun store owner in the swing state of Michigan recently told a local newspaper that new customers “are concerned because of the riots, upheaval, protests and talk of defunding the police”.
Republican convention speakers have sought to tap these concerns by arguing that Mr Biden and Ms Harris should have spoken out more forcefully against civil unrest and in support of the police. They have also criticised the Democrats for proposing new restrictions in firearms purchases, including a Biden proposal to ban a range of guns.
Democrats have learnt from bitter experience that gun rights and law and order issues can be used against them. In 1994, former president Bill Clinton blamed the party’s big losses in the midterm elections on gun rights activists. They were so angry about a new law banning assault weapons that they turned out in high numbers to vote Republican.
In 1968, Republican Richard Nixon made political hay of civil unrest, including violent confrontations between police and protesters at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, by running on an agenda of restoring “law and order”. He won decisively in the electoral college, while narrowly winning the popular vote, after narrating a television ad — set against images of urban violence — in which he declared: “So I pledge to you, we shall have order in the United States.”
Vice-president Mike Pence sounded similar this week: “Let me be clear . . . We will have law and order on the streets of America.”
The gun and law enforcement issues could well undermine a key part of what was supposed to be Mr Biden’s strength: his ability to win back working-class voters who supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 but defected to Mr Trump four years ago. Working class whites are also the largest group of Americans who sat out recent elections. A Brookings Institution study suggests that if a small number of them turn out and back Mr Trump, it would give him a boost in battleground states.
Polls also show that suburban swing voters — who helped Democrats win back control of the House in 2018 — are concerned about the violent protests. Mr Trump tapped their concerns when he prevailed four years ago. Events of the past week suggest he may be able to do so again.