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Analysis

Trump is out of D.C. The pandemic is fading. And the newest issue driving the American political discourse is quickly emerging

Police officers at the scene of a homicide in Manhattan.
Police officers at the scene of a homicide in Manhattan.JOHN TAGGART/NYT

Donald Trump has left the White House. The pandemic is entering the rearview mirror. And suddenly the next issue that drives American political discourse is emerging: crime.

In fact, in many ways the nuanced issue of crime is already leading the discussion. As New York City voters head to the polls today for the Democratic primary for mayor, crime already has separated the candidates between those who are advocating for more funding for police or less, as a rise in murders gains headlines. (There were 27 people shot in the city alone this past weekend.)

In a recent poll, crime was the single biggest issue on Democratic voters’ minds in New York City. It was ahead of reopening the economy, affordable housing, stopping the spread of COVID-19, and racial justice.

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In Atlanta, the debate over crime was considered among the reasons why Keisha Lance Bottoms, a national Democratic Party rising star, decided not to seek reelection.

In New Mexico, a special election for the US House served as one of the test cases for how Republicans and Democrats could discuss crime, which quickly became a leading issue. Interestingly, the Democrat surrounded herself with law enforcement in television ads and won.

And there has even been a push to hire police officers in Minneapolis, where the City Council pledged to dismantle the police department in the wake of George Floyd’s murder.

Concern about crime is now such a part of the agenda that the issue has reached the White House. On Wednesday, President Biden, according to an advisory, “will deliver remarks on his Administration’s crime prevention strategy and meet with stakeholders to discuss ways the Biden-Harris Administration is acting to keep our cities and neighborhoods safe.”

However, the truth behind voters’ attitudes and the campaign rhetoric is more nuanced. Yes, there is a rise in murders. In fact, the increase in murders from 2019 to 2020 was the highest it has been since the 1960s and the early numbers so far in 2021 suggest the trendline has not stopped. Violent assaults also rose 12 percent from 2019 to 2020.

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However, statistics from the FBI also show that the level of crime overall has declined for 17 straight years, and though murders have increased, the rate remains far below highs seen in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

That nuance may be lost in the heat of the campaign, and Republicans believe they can use this issue in the midterm elections next year.

Indeed, Republican congressional candidates are already making crime a central issue when they kick off their campaigns. Those aiding them want to tie the rise in murders to the “defund the police” concept that never really went beyond a slogan.

And, unlike the past, it is easy to see how Democrats can push back. Among that wave of murders, after all, were mass shootings. Democrats have tried to organize for major gun control legislation and could easily flip the issue to pressure Republicans on their stance.

That said, Democratic candidates also are trying to tie any new public safety measures to racial justice reforms, given the urgency of the topic among their base. Finding that balance can be tricky.

Crime as a major issue in American politics is hardly new. Trump, in fact, tried to raise it as an issue in the closing months of last year’s presidential campaign. Turns out that in some ways he wasn’t wrong, but voters ended up believing that other issues were more important. This time around, however, it could be the sleeper issue of the 2022 midterms.

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James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.