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Americans' Support for Death Penalty Stable

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Gallup has this report by Jeffrey Jones, with the above headline, on its last poll on the death penalty.

On the standard question, asked since the 30s and best used for trends over time, support is 63%, about where it's been for the last decade.  There is a strong difference by political party, but even among Democrats, the "yes" vote is a plurality, just shy of a majority.

On the very badly worded question that effectively asks people to specify a single punishment for all murders regardless of degree or circumstances, respondents chose the death penalty over life without parole by 50-45.  This is up in the last few years.  The LWOP choice was briefly a tick ahead, 48-47, in 2006.

The actual public policy question to be decided -- what punishment to impose on the very worst murderers -- was once again not asked.

My criticisms of poll wording on this topic are noted in this post last February.

Update:  Not mentioned in the report linked above, but found in the linked data report, is a better question, "In your opinion, is the death penalty imposed -- [ROTATED: too often, about the right amount, or not often enough]?"  This question is better because, unlike the other two, it at least partially addresses the fact that were are talking about a (small) subset of murders, not all murders.  The result is 40% Not Enough, 28% About Right, 24% Too Often, and 9% No Opinion. 

Support for capital punishment in its present scope or tougher is the sum of Not Enough and About Right, which comes to 68%.  That's down somewhat from the historical average ("only" 2/3, rather than 3/4), but it still swamps the Too Often vote by well over 2-to-1.

3 Comments

The link to the report does not work. In your opinion what is the best way to phrase the "what punishment for the very worst murderers" question?

The link is fixed, thanks.

The question as asked by Gallup was, "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?"

The question would be far better if worded, "If you could choose between the following two approaches, which do you think is the better penalty for the very worst murders -- [ROTATED: the death penalty (or) life imprisonment with no possibility of parole?"

Adding "the very worst" focuses on the murders the death penalty is actually for. Deleting "absolutely" removes the misleading implication that a person who receives the sentence can never be paroled. In fact, governors can commute LWOP sentences, and future legislatures can provide parole possibilities even when victims' families have been promised the killer would never get out. We have already seen such a statutory change in California for the under-18 murderers.

Also good is a question Quinnipiac asked a few years ago: "Which statement comes closest to your point of view? (A) All persons convicted of murder should get the death penalty. (B) No one convicted of murder should get the death penalty. (C) Whether or not someone convicted of murder gets the death penalty should depend on the circumstances of the case."

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