At the Washington Post’s PostPartisan Blog, Charles Lane poses an intriguing question this week. We’ve seen a horrifying increase in the murder and attempted murder of police officers since last year. At the same time we witnessed and endless media debate over police officers involved in lethal force encounters with black suspects, and the two campaigns in this election seemed to take very different approaches to the topic. Could that have been a factor in Trump’s support, perhaps even pushing him over the top in some swing states?
Voters faced a stark choice on this point: Trump called for “law and order” in his acceptance speech to the Republican convention, implying that the police and, by extension, America itself were under threat; Hillary Clinton embraced the Black Lives Matter movement (after some initial hesitation) and promised to continue the Obama administration Justice Department’s crackdown on police excesses.
In one swing state after another, including — strikingly — those that had seen particularly dramatic conflicts over the issue, Trump prevailed.
Of 11 states Politico defined as “battlegrounds” in 2016, four — Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Ohio — were scenes of highly publicized shootings of African Americans, all followed by protests, during Obama’s time as president.
Lane’s statistics about Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Ohio are certainly true. He goes on to note that the protests following those shootings turned violent in at least two of those states. Barack Obama won all of them in 2008 and Trump swept them this year, netting 72 electoral votes in the process. (Far more than his margin of victory.) Is there a causal relationship here or is Lane reading too much into what might be either a statistical anomaly or a result primarily driven by some other factor?
The attitudes of the candidates out on the campaign trail were very different on one of the two types of shootings, specifically officer involved shootings of minority suspects. Even if she was less than half hearted about it initially, Hillary Clinton quickly joined in with the Black Lives Matter movement on this question as soon as she saw that Bernie Sanders was going after the same sub-set of voters. Trump, on the other hand, was on the side of law enforcement pretty much wherever it could be justified. That’s pretty much the same view I’ve taken except in what appear to be rather obvious cases of malfeasance such as the Walter Scott Shooting in South Carolina.
On the other side of the coin, both candidates at least paid lip service to the idea that the murder of police officers was always evil, though some of Clinton’s surrogates occasionally couched their condemnation with expressions of, “… but you can see why people are angry.” Still, did that leave any questions in the minds of voters as to where each of the candidates stood?
One of Trump’s main themes coming out of the convention was Make America Safe Again, and he clearly portrayed himself as the law and order candidate. Clinton joined in with Barack Obama and his Attorney General in seeming far more suspicious of the motives of police in all but the most obviously justifiable shootings. So was it a campaign issue which really moved any voters? I’m going to come down with a qualified “yes” in answer to that one. But even attempting to read poll numbers in each state will never truly tell us whether it made a difference in the end.