Americans Mostly Agree on Policing. The Difference Is Priorities.

Americans are more likely to trade away issues relating to taxes, immigration and health care in order to get policies they want on policing; it leads the list for Democrats and Republicans and is one of the top three priorities for independents.

Though they want to maintain funding on average, Democrats revealed this to be the 13th-most important issue to them, behind things like enacting a path to citizenship for young undocumented immigrants known as Dreamers, universal gun background checks, and a government-guaranteed right to housing. This puts the importance of maintaining police funding near the middle of the 32 issues we asked about for Democrats.

Similarly, despite agreeing that neck restraints should be banned, Republicans prioritize 19 other items ahead of eliminating chokeholds (including not banning guns, building the border wall, providing direct cash payments to offset Covid-19 losses, and not abolishing private health insurance). Banning chokeholds is among the least important things to Republicans relative to the others we asked about.

These differences play into the candidates’ attacks on one another in an important but subtle way. Republican voters agree that chokeholds should be banned, but they don’t care about the ban as much as they care about maintaining the size, scope and funding of police departments. This allows Mr. Biden to suggest that Mr. Trump does not prioritize reforms to dangerous tactics. In June, Mr. Trump signed an executive order encouraging the overhauling of police practices like chokeholds, though not requiring it.

Similarly, Democratic voters generally agree that police departments should not be defunded, but they don’t care about it as much as they care about banning methods that prevent breathing. This allows Mr. Trump to suggest that if elected, Mr. Biden will not prioritize making sure police forces aren’t defunded. Mr. Biden has repeatedly said he does not support defunding the police.

Each candidate is trying to frame the other as a threat to maintaining safety. In July, Mr. Trump released an ad in which a woman calls 911 during a robbery and reaches a recording telling her to “leave a message.” In August, Mr. Biden told a crowd in Pittsburgh that when he was vice president, “violent crime fell 15 percent in this country,” adding that he did it “without chaos and disorder.”

Even when voters and candidates agree on what kind of world they’d like to live in, differences in priorities can foster suspicion and acrimony. Voters want candidates who agree with them. But they also want candidates who will focus on the issues that are most important to them.


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