In the weeks leading up to the 2022 midterms, voters were inundated with campaign ads, mostly from Republicans, that focused on rising crime.

According to AdImpact, Republicans ran 53,000 commercials that focused on crime in the first three weeks of September 2022. Priorities USA, a progressive advocacy organization, says 50% of all online ads from Republicans were centered around policing and public safety. “Defund the Police” shifted from a liberal rallying cry to a conservative one as many Republican candidates labeled their Democrat opponents as soft on crime.

Data from Pew Research Center suggests it’s an issue GOP voters are concerned about, with 73% of Republicans saying violent crime is a key voting issue, compared to just 49% of Democrats.

And the latest Deseret News/Hinckley Institute of Politics poll suggests the same sentiment is present in Utah, showing a clear distinction between party affiliation and political ideology, and concerns over crime.

Roughly 73% of respondents say crime and violence in their neighborhood is not a serious issue, and 59% say they are not concerned about crime and violence in their area. About 56% of respondents say crime in their area is the same as it was about a year ago, and 11% say there is less crime.

But when asked about crime trends nationwide, Utahns appear to be pessimistic, with 69% saying there is more crime in the U.S. now than there was a year ago — 37% say there is much more, and 32% say somewhat more.

The poll was conducted by Dan Jones & Associates and surveyed 801 registered Utah voters from June 26 to July 4. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.46 percentage points and a confidence level of 95%.

The data tells an interesting story when broken down along party affiliation and political ideology, with Republicans and conservatives holding wildly different opinions than Democrats and liberals.

A whopping 92% of very conservative voters say there is more crime in the U.S. now than a year ago — 75% of somewhat conservative voters agree.

About 50% of moderates say crime in the U.S. is increasing, with 37% saying it’s stagnant and 13% saying it’s decreasing.

And just 55% of somewhat liberal voters, and 30% of very liberal voters, say crime in the U.S. is increasing.

The same trends are clear when looking at party affiliation. About 76% of registered Republicans say crime in the U.S. increased in the last year, compared to 39% of Democrats.

Democrats and liberals are also less worried about crime in their area, according to the poll. About 49% of very conservative voters say they are concerned about their neighborhood — moving left on the political spectrum, that number decreases, with somewhat conservative at 44%, moderate at 40%, somewhat liberal at 35% and very liberal at 23%.

There are several explanations, according to Chris Karpowitz, a political science professor and co-director of the Center for the Study of Elections and Democracy at Brigham Young University. The political messaging from Republican campaigns, which in 2022 inundated voters with crime-focused ads, plays a role. As does a having Democratic president.

“People’s perceptions of the economy, for example, tend to vary with the occupant of the White House. This can happen shortly after an election, where the the underlying economic situation has not changed at all. But suddenly, people’s perceptions of it, or what they say to pollsters, changes,” said Karpowitz.

When asked about crime in their own area, the party lines blur. The majority of voters in both parties — 70% of Republicans and 66% of Democrats — say crime is either about the same, or declining, in the last year.

“Most of us believe crime is happening over there, not here. It’s those people, not us,” said Maura Carabello, president of the public policy communication firm Exoro Group, and KSL Newsradio host. “Crime is never your kid or your neighbor. Crime is somebody else. And even when it happens in your neighborhood, somebody else came in and did it.”

It’s difficult to tell if the poll results actually correlate with reality. Nationwide crime data is notoriously hard to collect, and reports are often misleading or unreliable.

“There’s not a national standard for crime data collection,” said Carabello, because most data collection is done at the local level by police and sheriff departments, with standards that vary by state or even county lines.

“Do they separate violent crime into the same categories? Do they separate domestic violence from rape? Do they have class felonies of rape? All of the different components of data gets initiated by local law enforcement, and they can largely put it in the way they want.”

A Layton police officer crosses police tape at the scene of a triple homicide in Layton on Friday, May 19, 2023. | Ryan Sun, Deseret News

Plus, the data that is available is easily misconstrued. Carabello calls it “one of the easiest things to manipulate.”

“It can technically be true — the guy in charge is technically not lying,” she said. “What mayor, governor or chief hasn’t announced that under their watch, crime went down?”

Data compiled by Pew Research Center points to an overall decrease in violent crime since the 1990s. Crime rates in large cities may be rising, but the latest FBI crime report estimates there was no national increase in violent crime in 2021, although murder did rise during the pandemic.

Still, the FBI admits its report lacks data from an estimated 48% of the country’s eligible police agencies — about 9,700 — that did not submit data for the report.

The lack of clear data makes it harder to form an opinion on crime nationwide, says Karpowitz, and could be a reason for the cynicism among poll respondents.

“It’s harder to see what the facts are. And in those situations of uncertainty, what do people rely on? They rely on the partisan messages they receive and on the partisan impressions they have,” he said.

In Utah, the Department of Public Safety adheres to the FBI’s standards and definitions. According to its database, property crimes are on the decline across the state since 2020 — as of May, it appears that trend will continue in 2023.

Meanwhile, personal crimes have increased in Utah since 2018, though 2023 is on track to be less than 2022.

Those same trends all apply to Salt Lake County.

A car is seen crashed into a home as Salt Lake police investigate a crime scene on 600 East near Wilmington Avenue in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. | Spenser Heaps, Deseret News