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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.

MoralAcceptDP2014.jpg
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.

How Do You Conduct a Phony Pot Survey?

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By sneaking in at the very end that it's simply a collection of responses from "site visitors" who wanted to put in their two cents.

Sentencing Law and Policy has up an entry touting a supposed poll by WebMD.  I went to WebMD's site and found its article, which begins as follows:

A majority of doctors say that medical marijuana should be legalized nationally and that it can deliver real benefits to patients, a new survey by WebMD/Medscape finds.

WebMD's web site for health professionals surveyed 1,544 doctors as more than 10 states consider bills to legalize medical marijuana. It is already legal in 21 states and Washington, DC. 


Now this got me a little suspicious, since (1) the AMA only recently came out against legalization, saying point-blank that pot is a "dangerous drug," and (2) I couldn't figure out how a website could conduct a random survey.

Here's the trick.  Way down at the very end, the WebMD entry says this (emphasis added): "WebMD's survey was completed by 2,960 random site visitors from Feb. 23 to 26, 2014. It has a margin of error of +/- 1.8%."

How cute.  There is no such thing as a "random" site visitor.  The people who visit a site are the ones who decide to click on it, and the people who decide to answer a poll on said site are the even narrower subset of those who want to be heard.

In other words, this "poll" has all the validity of a Glenn Beck site poll asking "random site visitors" whether Obama should be impeached.  Anyone wanna guess the answer?

Is it that we've locked up to many criminals, or that we have too much crime?

Congressional backers of slashing mandatory minimum sentences plainly believe the former.  Their main slogan is "incarceration nation," and they claim there's a "bi-partisan consensus" to cut the prison population.

One thing I learned in my days as a litigator is to listen for what you're not hearing. What I never seem to hear, amidst all these claims of consensus, is any polling results among ordinary people.  This makes a suspicious man like me wonder whether backers of so-called "reform" know enough to prefer not to take a poll; with all the George Soros money they've got, they could certainly commission one if they wanted.

I just stumbled across a poll, although it's a year old and asks a slightly different question. It's from Rasmussen, and I'll quote the (very short) story in full (emphasis added):

Americans feel even more strongly that the biggest problem with the criminal justice system is that too many criminals are set free. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey shows that 68% of U.S. adults believe that the bigger problem with law enforcement and the legal system is that too many criminals are released, not that too many innocent people are arrested. Eighteen percent (18%) hold the opposite view and think the bigger problem is that too many innocent people are arrested. Fifteen percent (15%) are undecided.

What backers of the Smarter Sentencing Act mean when they say there's a "consensus" in favor of the bill is now clear:  There's a consensus among cozy interest groups and academic leftists.  Talk to the man on the street, and it's a different story. 


Ohio DP Poll

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Quinnipiac Polling Institute has this poll in Ohio, mostly about the governor's race but also with a couple of questions about the death penalty.  Unfortunately, it appears that Quinnipiac is backsliding on the questions it asks.

As I have noted several times on this blog, the main problem in death penalty polling is that the questions often fail to distinguish between the penalty for the typical murder, which most people agree should be life in prison, and the penalty for the worst murders, which is the actual point of debate.

The generic question in death penalty polls, which Gallup has been asking since the 30s, goes something like Question 40 in this poll, "Do you favor or oppose the death penalty for persons convicted of murder?"  This question understates actual support for the death penalty for the worst murders, merely asking about murder generally.  Even phrased that way, however, the death penalty is favored by more than a 2-to-1 margin, 68-26.  The death penalty is heavily favored in every political affiliation, both sexes, and every age group.

So what does the heading of the press release say?  "Voters Divided on Death Penalty"

To get "divided," it is necessary to skew the question to the max in favor of the anti side.
Gallup has released its annual poll on support for the death penalty. On the question that Gallup has asked since the 30s, "Are you in favor of the death penalty for murder?", there is a bit of further erosion, although support is still overwhelmingly "yes" to that question.

As I have noted before here, though, the traditional question is deficient in that it could be understood to be asking about the death penalty for all murders or the typical murder.  I would answer "no" to the question, so understood, myself.

Another question Gallup asks better reflects the actual policy question of whether we should impose the death penalty on the worst murderers:  "In your opinion, is the death penalty imposed -- [ROTATED: too often, about the right amount, or not often enough]?"  The sum of right+not enough constitutes support for the death penalty as it presently is or tougher.

By this measure, support is up a tad since 2011, the last time Gallup asked the question, and opposition is down a tad.  "Right" + "not enough" totals 70%, up from 67%, while "too often" slips from 25% to 22%.
A number of times on this blog, I have been critical of the way poll questions on the death penalty are worded.  See prior posts here, here, and here.  An internal poll taken for the folks who want to fix California's death penalty asked the question in a way that captures the real public policy question better than any I have seen:

Some people argue that the death penalty should be repealed because it is too complicated and rarely enforced. Regulations have cost taxpayers millions of dollars because inmates must be kept in separate cells, and the appeal process is long and costly. Life in prison will be cheaper for taxpayers.

Others say that we should keep the death penalty in California but reform it to reduce the number of frivolous appeals and lengthy delays. Death row prisoners should not get expensive special treatment, like private cells, and should be forced to work and make restitution to their victim's families. Instead of repealing the death penalty, we should fix the system so that it is enforced.

Which of these two views do you agree with more -- the first statement or the second statement?
The first statement is essentially the argument for Proposition 34, death penalty repeal, on last year's California ballot.  The second is the "mend it, don't end it" position.

Changing v. Stable Views on Issues

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Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport has this brief video on how the public's views change drastically on some issues and very little on others. Of all the issues Gallup polls on, Newport chooses the death penalty as the example of an issue with very stable polling results.  The "yes" answer to Gallup's basic question was 59% in 1939, 63% last December.  Interracial marriage, in contrast, has gone from near-unanimous rejection to overwhelming approval in about half a century.

The anti-DP propaganda machine wants you to think that public support for the death penalty is collapsing.  The people who poll as a profession don't think so.

As I have explained previously, Gallup's basic question understates actual support for the death penalty.  It is useful for examining long-term trends, though, simply because of the length of time Gallup has been asking it.

Campaigning on a Platform of Legalizing Pot

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One of the Democratic candidates for Mayor of New York City, Comptroller John C. Liu, has proposed legalizing pot. The Washington Post story is here.  Prof. Doug Berman had this to say about it:

I think this story is notable and significant not only because a notable NYC politician is making a public case for marijuana legalization, but also because it seems likely to get this mayoral candidate a lot more media attention in the weeks and months ahead. And if this pot legalization advocacy not only improves Liu's media hits, but also his overall standing in the mayoral [polls], lots of other politician are sure to take note.

OK, that's cool.  So let's take a look at Mr. Liu's polling these days.

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