The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump keeps claiming that the most dangerous cities in America are all run by Democrats. They aren’t.

President Trump steps off Air Force One before heading to his campaign rally in Tulsa on Saturday. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
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With the economy hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic and protesters in the streets targeting America’s systemic racism, President Trump has been forced to revise his reelection strategy. What was once going to be a triumphal declaration of his effectiveness at keeping the economy afloat has been reworked as a reiteration of his 2016 run: a focus on making America great and, more specifically, on law and order.

Over and over, Trump has shared that terse phrase with his tens of millions of Twitter followers, including on Wednesday and Thursday. And over and over, he has tried to imply that Democrats broadly and former vice president Joe Biden specifically are soft on crime. That his likely general election opponent and other leaders in the Democratic Party are happy to have social structures collapse into anarchy for some unclear reason.

To make that case, Trump has repeatedly lifted up a statistical factoid, as he did during an event at the White House on Wednesday.

“You hear about certain places like Chicago and you hear about what’s going on in Detroit and other — other cities, all Democrat run,” he said. “Every one of them is Democrat run. Twenty out of 20. The 20 worst, the 20 most dangerous are Democrat run.”

It’s not clear how Trump is defining “most dangerous” in this context. So let’s look at two related sets of data compiled by the FBI: most violent crime and most violent crime per capita.

The most recent data to that effect is from the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report covering the first half of 2019. The cities with the most violent crimes are many of the most populous cities in the country, as you might expect. Those with the highest rates of violent crime are from a range of different states.

Most of the current mayors of these cities are Democrats. Two of the mayors of cities with the most reported violent crimes overall, though, are independents and one, the mayor of Jacksonville, Fla., is a Republican. Among the 20 cities with the most violent crime per capita, one isn’t a Democrat: the independent mayor of Springfield, Mo.

Trump would no doubt shrug at that detail, decrying as “fake news” the revelation that his assertion was only slightly wrong. And, in fairness, it actually doesn’t matter that four of the 32 cities listed above have non-Democratic mayors — because it doesn’t really matter that the other mayors are Democrats.

Cities generally have more crime than suburban and rural areas. That’s been true for decades if not centuries and is true across the planet. The connection has been the focus of repeated research. In other words, if it were the case that cities were also more prone to elect members of one party over another, it might seem as though the most crime-riddled places in America were a function of leadership from that party.

Well, reader, I have a surprise for you.

Just kidding, of course. You are certainly aware that cities tend to be heavily Democratic. In the 2018 House elections, Democrats won every district identified by CityLab as being purely urban. They lost only one district identified as an “urban-suburban mix.” In other words, Democrats won 81 of the 82 congressional districts identified as fully or partially urban.

Why are cities so Democratic? A few reasons.

One is that there’s been a broad redistribution of the American population over the past few decades, with Americans being more likely to live near those who share their politics. Young Americans with or seeking college degrees have moved to large urban centers for work or education, leaving older relatives in more suburban and rural areas.

2018 data from Pew Research Center found that people in urban counties were twice as likely to be Democrats or Democrat-leaning independents as Republicans or Republican-leaning independents — a 31-point margin. Two decades previously, the spread between the parties was only 18 points. In rural areas, Republicans had a 16-point advantage, while in 1998 both parties were equally represented.

Another is that cities are less densely white. The Pew research also found that less than half of urban residents were non-Hispanic white. Since nonwhite Americans are much more heavily Democratic, that’s made cities more densely Democratic, too.

Since there’s a correlation between size and amount of crime and between size and propensity to vote Democratic, it’s problematic to draw a causal relationship between crime and Democratic leadership. It may be the case that cities with more crime are more likely to have Democratic leaders. Such a comparison, though, is fraught, relying on the validity of reported crime data, the metric used to establish which cities are included in the analysis, the time period under consideration and so on.

To a large extent, of course, Trump isn’t really trying to make a point beyond “cities and Democrats are scary.” He’s not going to win cities but he might scare suburban voters — voters he desperately needs in November — by tying Democrats and crime together.

In 2016, that’s precisely what he tried to do during his speech at the Republican convention. That might be harder this year, given that his convention speech will not be in Charlotte, as originally planned. Instead, Trump will be speaking from Jacksonville, a city with a lot of violent crime that happens to be led by a Republican.