The Gallup Poll's death penalty survey was released yesterday. It is available here, free for the time being. On the question that best reflects public support, three-quarters of the American people support the death penalty in its present extent or want it imposed more often.
The traditional question that Gallup has asked since 1936 is, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder?" The result was 69% yes and 27% no, an increase of 5% in the spread since May 2006. These numbers have not varied much since 1999, though, ranging only from 64-71 yes and 22-32 no. Support was higher in the 1990s at around 80% and lower before then. People who like to spin misleading half-truths like to say support is "down" by comparing the present level to the all-time high. Of course, the present level of support is down from its all-time high and up from its all-time low. Most statistics are.
The traditional question is best for comparing relative support at different times, simply because of how long Gallup has been asking the question. However, it understates actual support because some respondents may interpret it as asking for a single punishment for all murderers, rather than for the worst murderers. That would have been a reasonable question in 1936, but it has little relevance to the question being debated in the post-Furman era.
A better measure of support for current death penalty law is a question that Gallup has only asked since 2001, "In your opinion, is the death penalty imposed -- [ROTATED: too often, about the right amount, or not often enough]?" By asking how often, rather than yes or no, this question avoids the issue of specifying a single punishment for the entire class of murders. The sum of about right and not enough represents people who support the death penalty in its present form or want it tougher, and this sum has been fairly steady at 71-77 since 2001. In the latest survey, 49% said not enough, 26% said about right, 21% said too often, and 4% had no opinion.
This tells us that 75% are in favor of using the death penalty in at least its present extent. In addition, it is clear that not everyone who answered "no" to the traditional question is in favor of abolition of the death penalty. At least some of them said the penalty is imposed about the right amount at present. The number who said too often surely includes some who would like to see fewer death penalties but not complete abolition.
Only 38% have bought the opponents' arguments that the death penalty is applied unfairly. That number has also been fairly steady since 2000.
This time, Gallup did not ask the very badly skewed question that the opponents love, "If you could choose between the following two approaches, which do you think is the better penalty for murder -- [ROTATED: the death penalty (or) life imprisonment, with absolutely no possibility of parole]?" (emphasis added). If I were to sit down and intentionally try to craft a question as skewed as possible, I don't think I could do better than this one. The definite article on "the better penalty for murder" implies a single penalty for all murders even more strongly than the traditional question does. If that were truly the issue, I would say LWOP myself. But it's not. In addition, there is no such thing as "absolutely no possibility of parole" unless we abolish executive clemency and disable future legislatures from amending the statute. I've wondered for a long time how a reputable polling organization such as Gallup could ask such a badly skewed question. Let's hope they drop it permanently.