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November 21, 2021

Are more conservatives really turning away from the death penalty?

The question in the title of this post is prompted by this new Wall Street Journal article headlined "More Conservatives Turn Away From Death Penalty."  In addition, Demetrius Minor his this new opinion piece from Newsweek, headlined "Republicans Across the Country Are Joining the Fight to End the Death Penalty," provides this accounting:

[I]n deep red Utah are considering ending the state's death penalty. Governor Spencer Cox, who has previously revealed his support for the death penalty, says he is now open to "reevaluating" his stance on the issue. He is joined by Utah County Attorney David Leavitt, another Republican who has said his office would no longer seek death penalty prosecutions....

And this isn't just occurring in Utah. There is a nationwide trend of Republican- controlled state legislatures re-thinking capital punishment driven by the fiscal, moral, and cultural conservative values that should lead us to oppose the death penalty. Virginia repealed the death penalty in March 2021 with bipartisan support. Pennsylvania, Kansas, Wyoming, Kentucky, Georgia, Montana, Washington, and Ohio all have had Republican-sponsored bills this year, with a total of 40 Republican sponsors.

In Ohio, a political bell-weather state that has become very red in recent election cycles, former Congresswoman and now State Representative Jean Schmidt and Sen. Stephen Huffman are Republican prime sponsors of bills to end the death penalty. They are clear that the death penalty is a contradiction to their conservative beliefs.

I do sense that a few more GOP leaders are a bit more comfortable expressing capital opposition, and yet I am unclear if this is a major trend or really anything all that new.  Notably, I have seen (and blogged) about stories claiming or advocating for softer support for capital punishment among those on the right, and yet polling numbers do not show any real shift.  Gallup released its latest polling on the death penalty this past week, and here is its discussion of the political dynamics:

Gallup began asking its historical death penalty trend question in its annual Crime survey beginning in 2000. During this time, there have been two notable shifts in death penalty attitudes. Between 2011 and 2016, the percentage expressing support showed a drop to 61% from 66% in the preceding decade. In the past four years, support has fallen further to an average 56%.

Both Democrats and independents show declines in their support for the death penalty, including similar drops (eight and seven percentage points, respectively) since 2016. Between the 2000-2010 and 2011-2016 time periods, Democratic support dropped more (eight points) than independent support did (three points). Now, 39% of Democrats and 54% of independents are in favor of the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Republicans' support for the death penalty has held steady, with 79% currently supporting it, unchanged since 2016 and barely lower than the 80% registered between 2000 and 2010.

Here is a sampling of some older posts on this front through the years:

November 21, 2021 at 01:15 PM | Permalink


The existence of Republican-sponsored bill is a red herring. There have always been some pro-life Republicans who oppose both abortion and the death penalty. So it's not that unusual to have a Republican sponsoring or co-sponsoring a bill to eliminate the death penalty. After all, it only takes one member of the legislature to file a bill. (In my state, this year, we had around 2000 bills filed).

What matters is what happens after a bill is filed and exactly which member of the legislature filed it. If the sponsor is a senior member of the legislative leadership or chair of the committee that would hear the bill, that could make a difference. But ultimately, it is not bills filed, but bills debated on the floor of the legislature that matters. Most bills never get to the floor, and even fewer get passed. (Back to my state, out of that 2000 bills filed, around 60 passed both houses and one quarter of those were "must pass" appropriations bills.) If abolition bills start getting serious debates and close to passing in red states, that would be significant. But merely having one Republican file one means very little.

Posted by: tmm | Nov 22, 2021 10:22:48 AM

One way to test this is to look at the overall results nation-wide.

It is notable to me, for example, the recent Mississippi execution was the first one since 2012. There are about three dozen people on the state death row. And, the only one executed is a "volunteer."

I don't know how the specific numbers split. That sort of thing is somewhat hard to quantify though I welcome the attempt.

Posted by: Joe | Nov 22, 2021 10:41:08 AM

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