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August 18, 2021

Notable accounting of "widespread support" for the death penalty in public polling

Joseph Bessette and J. Andrew Sinclair have this lengthy new post at Real Clear Policy discussing public polling in the US about capital punishment. The lengthy piece, which I recommend in full, is titled "New Evidence Confirms Widespread Support for the Death Penalty." Here are a few excerpts (with few links from the original):

On July 1, the Biden administration halted the use of the federal death penalty, reversing the Trump administration’s 2020 resumption of executions.  The announcement of a moratorium pending a review of “policies and procedures” is less permanent than legislative abolition, but it is unlikely the president could get Congress to end the death penalty. Many Americans support capital punishment; in fact, our research shows that public support for the death penalty is even greater than commonly reported....

The Pew Research Center recently reported that 60% of Americans support the death penalty for murder.  Gallup, which has been asking Americans about capital punishment since the late 1930s, gauges current support at 55%.  These are clear majorities but well below the modern peak of around 80% in the mid-1990s.  Political choices have begun to reflect this systematic decline in support. Despite championing the death penalty in the 1990s, President Biden joined nearly every other Democratic presidential candidate in calling for its abolition in his 2020 campaign.  Virginia (in 2021) and Colorado (in 2020), both states trending towards the Democratic Party, recently abolished the death penalty.

Although the two of us disagree about whether capital punishment should be public policy in the United States, we agree that a nuanced approach is required for understanding public opinion on this issue.  The standard type of death penalty question, asked over and over again for more than half a century, leaves policymakers, scholars, and citizens with an incomplete picture of support, or potential support, for the death penalty.  We are far from the first to observe that the answer you get depends on the question you ask.  We have begun a project, though, of systematically trying to understand what these different responses can tell us about how many American voters support capital punishment. 

Both Gallup and Pew ask a generic question. Gallup asks, “Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?” Although Pew gives more options to measure level of support, its question is otherwise nearly identical: “Do you strongly favor, favor, oppose or strongly oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?” Other polling organizations tend to ask versions of this question as well. Yet, these questions do not distinguish between most murders and the specific kinds of aggravated murders that make someone eligible for the death penalty in the 27 American states that retain capital punishment.  If you oppose the death penalty for most murders, but not all murders, how would you answer the generic question?...

While we continue to conduct survey research on the death penalty, we wanted to share our main findings from surveys conducted in June 2019 and October 2020 because of the renewed debate of recent months and years. (We present our key findings in a report released by the Rose Institute of State and Local Government, Claremont McKenna College.)  In each survey, we used a three-part approach to gauging support for the death penalty.  First, we asked a version of a general question about the death penalty.  Second, we asked all respondents about the appropriateness of the death penalty for particular aggravated murders.  Third, we asked respondents for their opinion about a death penalty policy decision in their own states....

To provide a rough summary of our findings: We can divide the electorate into three groups of different sizes.  About a fifth of American voters oppose the death penalty in nearly every circumstance: These appear to be the truly committed opponents.  About three fifths reliably support the death penalty: they favor it in theory and also want to have a death penalty law in their state.  A final fifth of the American electorate approves of the death penalty in some way, in theory, but does not necessarily want the death penalty in their state. 

Framed this way, there is more support for the death penalty than the 55% (Gallup) or 60% (Pew) numbers might suggest. This is not to say those numbers are “wrong” (with similar questions, we find similar results), but just that they understate death penalty support for the kinds of aggravated murders that make an offender eligible for capital punishment in American states.  If a substantial proportion of death penalty “opponents” — as measured by Gallup and Pew — actually approve, at least theoretically, of the death penalty in some cases, their opposition is much softer than might be assumed.  As prior research on this subject has demonstrated, changing crime rates or different media coverage might drive up support again, and these types of voters could potentially be satisfied with laws that focused on a few highly aggravated murders, provided special safeguards against mistaken convictions, or had other features to mitigate their concerns about implementation.  Truly committed opponents are a small minority of voters. 

I am always glad to see more thorough efforts to gauge public opinion in a more granular way. But I wonder if polling on the death penalty could be even more accurate if persons were informed about the considerable costs and inevitable delays that always attend the application of the death penalty in the US.

In some sense, many of these issues will be on display this fall when the Supreme Court considers the reversal of the death sentence given to the Boston Marathon bomber in United States v. Tsarnaev.  Tsarnaev committed his horrific crime now more than eight years ago, and I suspect the many millions spent on lawyers and court actions to fight over a death sentence might seem like a waste of resources even to those who would say they generally support capital punishment in a poll.  Or maybe the awfulness of Tsarnaev's crime might lead even more persons to be death penalty supporters no matter the costs and delays.

August 18, 2021 at 11:22 AM | Permalink

Comments

One telling bit:

"60% of U.S. adults favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, including 27% who strongly favor it."

There are LOTS of "murders" but only a small fraction even are liable to be capital and from there only a smaller subject are actually brought. So, the "strongly favor" is to me a key issue here.

Since the death penalty is barely used these days, especially outside Texas and a limited number of other places, the "favoring" seems a bit small.

It isn't all a matter of court challenges or anything. Plus, the court challenges in part works off public opinion, especially as expressed in legislation and so forth.

"Yet support for the death penalty is strongly associated with a belief that when someone commits murder, the death penalty is morally justified."

This was NEVER really quite how the death penalty actually was applied overall & especially isn't true today. People don't, full stop, think a "murder" morally justifies the death penalty. Again, there are lots of murders. As far as they act, people think that something extra is required. The murder has to be particularly bad in some fashion. Then, they think certain categories of people (such as the very young) should not be executed.

But, murder only is not it, even among supports of the death penalty. And, yes, fully being informed will change things some. Thurgood Marshall alleged that in Furman & Gregg. How much? I'm not sure.

Some years back, the referendum on the death penalty from California (perhaps not a typical example) was covered here. The state was nearly evenly split, margin of error category.

Of course, popular polling might lead to support for various dubious things, including at least weak support of major limits on 1A freedoms.

Posted by: Joe | Aug 19, 2021 1:01:31 PM

another view of the numbers here:

https://verdict.justia.com/2021/08/23/what-the-american-people-really-think-about-capital-punishment

Posted by: Joe | Aug 23, 2021 10:03:48 AM

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