Nothing new here about the overall downward trend, which has been steady since the height of America’s crime panic in the mid-90s. (Pew itself has noticed that before.) The public still supports the death penalty on balance, 56/38, but that’s way down from the 78/18 split of 20 years ago. What’s new to me is how far support has fallen among key demographics. This issue has long been polarized between right and left but it’s on its way to becoming polarized along partisan lines too — and between men and women.
The gap between Republicans and Democrats has been wide since Clinton left office but not until the past few years has Democratic support for capital punishment actually dipped below 50 percent. It’s now firmly a minority position within the party, with Dems splitting 40/56 versus 77/17 for Republicans. Anyone doubt that Obama has one more “evolution” left in him on a hot-button issue before he steps down in 2017? No president, as far as I know, has ever declared his categorical opposition to the death penalty. Seems hard to believe O won’t blaze that trail before retiring given the slobber it’d inspire among his base and historians.
It’s not just Democrats who are shifting either:
If you believe Pew, this is now a plurality, not majority, position among women — and, at 49/45, barely a plurality at that. They’re down 10 points in less than four years while men’s support has barely budged. Hispanics, meanwhile, have already tilted towards mild opposition of capital punishment after showing majority support as recently as three years ago. Makes me wonder what Hillary will do with that information. It’d be risky to oppose the death penalty in a country where more than half of the public still supports it, but executions of federal prisoners are so rare — just 37 in nearly 90 years, with none in the past decade — that a would-be president’s opinion on the subject is almost academic. Opposing the death penalty would be an easy way for her to earn goodwill from a left-wing base that thinks she’s a phony progressive. And with support heading south among the groups whose votes she covets most, namely, women and minorities, it might be a safer play than anyone thinks. Who knows? A statement of opposition from the Democratic nominee might actually encourage further erosion of support within those demographics, making her position even less risky. And she could always hedge by saying that she supports CP for terrorists but not anyone else.
Now, you tell me: What’s driving the decline in support for the death penalty? One obvious factor is that crime rates have dropped sharply since the mid-90s, reducing public pressure for the strongest possible deterrent. Another obvious one is garish stories about botched executions, a crisis partly created by opponents of capital punishment making it harder for states to obtain reliable lethal drugs. Another is media coverage of high-profile killings by police in the Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Walter Scott cases. There’s no direct link between those incidents and the death penalty, but political opinions aren’t always (or even often) formed by direct cause-and-effect observations. Americans are more likely to support capital punishment when they feel threatened by crime; when they have a drumbeat of coverage suggesting they should feel threatened by police, naturally they’re going to be more reluctant to give law enforcement lethal power. And finally, of course, there’s the ol’ standby of partisanship. We live in an age of extreme partisan polarization, as every pundit in America has noted repeatedly, so there’s a certain inevitability to lefties turning further left on this subject while righties, whose support for CP was already sky high, remain strongly in support. Probably no changing that in the near term. At least, not unless/until there’s another national crime wave.