But in the two decades since, violent crime has dropped and dropped. As a result, public attitudes have softened. The percentage of Americans who favor the death penalty for murderers, which hit 80 percent in 1994, fell to 60 percent last year. Even more importantly, crime has virtually disappeared as a political issue. In 1994, according to the University of Albany, 37 percent of Americans cited crime or violence as the “most important problem facing the country.” By 2012, it was 2 percent.
It’s not that many of the white conservatives who once voted Republican because of their fear of crime no longer harbor racialized fears about illegality and public disorder. They still do. But to a large degree, those fears have shifted from black crime to Latino immigration. And this shift has given Paul and other Republicans the space to challenge harsh police tactics and sentencing policies without incurring the wrath of their party base.
In intriguing ways, Rand Paul in 2014 is the mirror image of Bill Clinton in 1992. Clinton won white votes by confronting their stereotype of Democrats as soft on black crime. Paul is trying to win black and other minority votes by confronting their stereotype of Republicans as indifferent to white racism.