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Abolitionism versus Reality

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Statement of abolitionism, via the head of the National Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty (interviewed by Salon):

"How death penalty politics radically, shockingly changed:  Death row's days are numbered..."

Statement of reality, via Gallup:

"Americans' Support for Death Penalty Stable.  WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Six in 10 Americans favor the death penalty for convicted murderers, generally consistent with attitudes since 2008."

For willingness to lie, belligerently and with a straight face, I have seldom encountered anything like the abolitionist movement.  The refrain is that public support for the death penalty has been crumbling in recent years, but the truth is otherwise (as abolitionists know while they continue to dissemble). 

Anyone who knows anything about polling will tell you that you can produce dramatic swings in results by how you phrase the question.  A common and blatant method of skewing a poll is to build arguments for one side into the question.

Public Policy Polling has done a poll on the Pennsylvania Governor's death penalty moratorium that is so blatantly worded that it reads like a parody of bad polling.  If an instructor gave his students an assignment to "draft the worst poll question you possibly can," it would read something like this:

Governor Wolf has temporarily paused executions in Pennsylvania until concerns about the risk of executing innocent people, the high cost of the death penalty, and serious issues of unfairness can be addressed by a bipartisan study commission. Do you strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose or strongly oppose the decision to temporarily pause executions?
Yet even skewed to the max they didn't crack a majority.  "Strongly support" and "somewhat support" only totaled 50%.

They also asked the extremely biased "which punishment" question we have noted many times before, implying that the respondent must choose a single punishment for all murderers.

The press seems to be lapping this up, uncritically reporting the poll result with no mention of the extreme bias in the wording.  See, e.g., this article in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader.

The real news here is that support for the death penalty remains so robust that even a badly worded question like this can't generate a substantial majority.  No one seems to be getting that.
I'm preparing for a few debates and panels on sentencing reform when I return to the mainland next week.  In surveying the territory, I see three major questions that could use more definitive answers than they have now.  Indeed, I don't know how an informed debate is possible without pretty clear answers.

1.  How much of the huge drop in crime over the last 25 years is because of the increased use of incarceration?  The recent Brennan Center study, and the earlier but more neutral Levitt study, give wildly different answers.  

2.  What is the electorate's view of the current state of crime and punishment in America?  Does the public agree with the Attorney General that we have too many people in prison for too long, or does it think we aren't doing enough to keep people who commit crime off the street?  To my knowledge, this question has never been polled by any respected organization.

3.  Most people in the sentencing reform movement think we should start imposing shorter sentences and releasing thousands of inmates already serving their terms. Does the public think the sentencing system has made consistently sound, or unsound, decisions about who should go to jail and for how long? Does the public think, if we change the system, that roughly the same people will make consistently sound, or unsound, decisions about who is safe to release?

Race Relations Tank

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An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll published four days ago showed that, as our "national conversation" about race gets pumped by Eric Holder, Al Sharpton and like-minded opinion leaders, Americans view race relations as having hit their lowest point since the last century.

The reason for this seems evident to me.  The "national conversation" is not designed to promote understanding, cooperation or "healing"  --  the usual goals we get lectured about.  It's designed to promote anger, resentment and grievance. The poll suggests it's succeeding.

It was taken, of course, before the yesterday's avowedly racist police assassinations. 

Confidence in the Police

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Kent's last post showed that the police are vastly more trusted than, among others, lawyers.  

Gallup also did a survey about confidence in the police in other wealthy countries around the world. The results demonstrate that the United States is slightly above the middle.  It's just below Norway, Denmark and Sweden, and just ahead of Portugal, the Netherlands, and the United Kingdom.

Specifically, 78% answered "yes" when asked, "In the city or area where you live, do you have confidence in the local police force, or not?" 

The survey is here.
A:  Not a whole lot.

The country seems to have figured out that the adult answer to the moral questions about aggressive interrogation is that, when thousands of innocent lives are at risk from an enemy who has shown he regards snuffing them out as the pathway to heaven, you do what you need to.  As today's Washington Post reports:

A new poll from the Pew Research Center is the first to gauge reactions to last week's big CIA report on "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- what agency critics call torture.

And the reaction is pretty muted.

The poll shows people says 51-29 percent than the CIA's methods were justified and 56-28 percent that the information gleaned helped prevent terror attacks.

Poll on Police Prejudice Against Blacks

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CNN published an interesting poll asking, "In general, how many police officers 
in the area where you live do you feel are prejudiced against blacks:  most of them, some of them, only a few of them, or almost none them?  The results were:












Only a few





Almost none





All (vol.)





None (vol.)







The most noteworthy aspect of the poll, I thought, was that nearly two-thirds of
the non-whites said that none, almost none, or only a few police were prejudiced.
Earlier today, I noted Gallup's most recent poll on people's attitudes on the death penalty.  That post was updated later with some further data.

Structured questions in polls can give useful numbers, but open-ended questions can tell us some interesting things also.  Art Swift of Gallup reported separately on an open-ended question that asked people for the reason behind their position on the main question.
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.

Field Poll on California Death Penalty

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Opponents of the death penalty in California are happy about a new Field Poll that shows their position is behind by "only" 22%, less than previously.
Will Dahlgreen at YouGov has this article stating that according to that organization's survey, "50 years after the last execution in Britain, people still tend to support the reintroduction of the death penalty, by 45-39%."

However, as noted by in this post by Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement at The Fix, the WaPo's political blog (previously mentioned on this blog here) YouGov polls a self-selected sample, one of the worst ways to do polling.  Actual support is likely much higher, as has been indicated in recent years by legitimate polls.  See posts of 2010 and 2013.
The science of public opinion polling is discussed on this blog from time to time.  I have been critical occasionally of the way poll questions have been worded, but the major news organizations to date have at least used valid polling methodology.  That's about to change, apparently, according to this post by Peyton M. Craighill and Scott Clement at The Fix, the WaPo's political blog:

A new state election polling collaboration between the New York Times, CBS News and internet pollster YouGov has drawn an unusual public rebuke from the leading organization of survey researchers, adding fuel to a fiery debate over what makes a poll "good" or "bad".

The American Association for Public Opinion Research (AAPOR) criticized the Times and CBS for its state polling with YouGov, saying the survey methods used by the polls has "little grounding in theory" and a lagging disclosure of methodological details required to assess the poll's quality. In addition, AAPOR chided the Times for removing its published set of poll reporting standards which had mostly barred the use of opt-in internet surveys -- like those used by YouGov--  by the newsroom and replacing it with a note explaining that it has begun a process to review its polling standards.*
I will venture a prediction that polls on crime issues that are based on self-selected samples from the Internet will show a large and immediate jump in the direction of soft-on-crime positions.

One More Note on Gallup

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Kent has put up the Gallup poll on whether Americans view the death penalty as morally acceptable.  Now that I take a look at the poll more closely, there is one point in particular that stands out.

How many times in the last couple of years have we heard that the country is turning against the death penalty.  Dozens?  Hundreds?  Who knows.  

Now look at the poll.  What does it tell you?  It tells you that the percentage viewing the DP as morally acceptable has risen in the last two years by 3 points, from 58 to 61, while the percentage viewing it as unacceptable has fallen by 4 points, from 34 to 30.  In other words the margin favoring the DP as acceptable over unacceptable has gone from 24 points to 31 points, an increase of 7 points.  

To put it differently, the margin favoring the DP as acceptable is 29% higher now than it was two years ago.

What does that tell you about how truthful abolitionists are being when they bellow that support for the DP is collapsing?

Yes, well, moving right along........................  
Jeffrey Jones has this report for Gallup, with the above title.

This report comes from Gallup's annual survey on moral acceptability of various issues, and Americans' views on the death penalty have proven remarkably stable.  I noted this survey on the blog in 2010, and not much has changed.  Here is an updated graph.  Click for a larger view.

Given that current law only allows for the death penalty for an aggravated subset of murders and only after considering the defendant's case in mitigation, I consider the sum of "acceptable" and "it depends" to be the proper measure of support for the death penalty as it exists in America today.  The "depends," BTW, is a "volunteered" answer, given by people who break out of the choices offered by the question to give their own.  These numbers would surely be higher if the choice were offered in the question.

The variation over the last 13 years has barely budged outside the 4% sampling error confidence interval.

Last August, Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport made this short video about how polling shows that public opinion is highly changeable on some issues while it changes very little on others.  Of all the issues Gallup surveys on, Newport chose the death penalty as his example of stability of public opinion.

In a word, no.

According to an NBC News poll taken May 7 - May 10 (i.e., in the immediate aftermath of the failed execution and at the height of the press coverage about it): 

A comfortable majority of those questioned -- 59% -- said they favor the death penalty as the ultimate punishment for murder, while 35% said they are opposed.

That split is in line with surveys done before Lockett's death in the last two years, and also reflects the erosion of support for capital punishment since the 1990s, when it was more than 70%.

"I don't think this fundamentally altered views about the death penalty," said Bill McInturff of Public Opinion Strategies.

Just so.  The most recent Gallup poll had support at 60%, and a poll six weeks ago by Pew had it at 55%.

I'm a little surprised.  Given the explosion of media outrage (articles collected by SL&P, here), I thought support would take a hit.  Immediate facts usually tend to affect opinions about the DP, such as in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City massacre and the Boston Marathon bombing.  I'm glad to see that, according to this poll, at least, Americans continue to understand that there are some crimes for which a mere prison term, no matter how long, makes a joke of justice.

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