Americans Support the Death Penalty, At Least in the Abstract

[09.21.2011]

Over the past few months, much (electronic) ink has been spilled over an issue that doesn’t usually get much play: the death penalty.  The planned executions of Duane Buck in Texas and Troy Davis in Georgia resurrected the debate over the morality of the death penalty, although these cases are somewhat unusual.  The Georgia Pardons Board refused clemency for Davis yesterday, which means that he will likely be executed tonight (Buck was saved, at least temporarily, when the U.S. Supreme Court stepped in).  This has not silenced the flood of public figures and ordinary citizens saying that there is still too much doubt for the execution to go forward, pointing to recanted eyewitness testimony in Davis’ trial as evidence that Davis may not have committed the crime for which he is slated to be executed.

The question of innocence or guilt is, of course, one that is impossible to measure using public opinion data, but as Pew’s data from 2010 and more recent data from PRRI shows, Americans are not ambivalent in their feelings about the death penalty in the case of convicted murderers: a strong majority (67%) of Americans currently favor capital punishment.*  Pew’s longitudinal data shows that since the late 1960’s, public support for the death penalty for convicted murderers has never fallen below 50%.

In surveys conducted this past summer, PRRI found that even among black Protestants, a religious group that might be expected to oppose the death penalty because of the high numbers of African American men on death row, disproportionate to their representation among the population, 53% favored or strongly favored capital punishment. Their slim majority was nothing compared to the nearly 8-in-10 (76%) white evangelicals, 73% of white mainline Protestants, and 69% of Mormons who say they favor capital punishment. Only Jews were remotely comparable to black Protestants, but even among this group a solid majority (58%) favor the death penalty.

Analysis of respondents’ demographic and political affiliation also showed that Americans’ general support for the death penalty transcends ethnic, gender, racial and party lines. For example, majorities of African Americans (52%) and Hispanics (54%) favored or strongly favor capital punishment for convicted murderers, as do a whopping 71% of white Americans.

Even among Democrats and other more liberal groups, majorities support the death penalty for convicted murders. Nearly 6-in-10 (57%) Democrats, 56% of self-identified liberals, and 55% of the highest-educated Americans – the holders of post-graduate degrees – favored or strongly favored the death penalty.

There is also an important intensity gap. Three times as many Americans say they strongly favor the death penalty as say they strongly oppose it (33% vs. 11% respectively).

Obviously, respondents were being asked about whether they supported the death penalty for a convicted murderer, so these numbers do not reflect cases where there are credible questions raised about the certainty of guilt, such as the Davis’ case. Our data shows that Americans support the death penalty in the abstract.  But these new discussions also illustrate the need for further research on what Americans believe should happen when a convicted murderer’s guilt is called into question.  After all, it’s one thing to authoritatively declare that the death penalty is morally wrong, and quite another to untangle how capital punishment should be implemented.  The questions raised by those who have asked for clemency on Davis’ behalf show that on the death penalty as with so many other issues, Americans may well see a gap between principle and practice.

*This analysis is based on responses from two nationals survey conducted April 22 – May 8, 2011 and July 14 – July 30, 2011 that were combined to allow for more detailed examination of specific subgroups. Appropriate weights were applied.