Pew Poll Reveals 5% Jump in Public Support for Death Penalty

Death Penalty
Pat Sullivan/AP

A majority of Americans now favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder, the Pew Research Center revealed this week, reversing a decades-long trend toward opposition of capital punishment.

For the first time since such surveys began in the 1970s, 2016 saw less than 50 percent support (49 percent) for the death penalty among U.S. citizens, a figure which has now jumped back to 54 percent in 2018.

Only 39 percent now say they are opposed to capital punishment for murderers, according to the Pew survey, which was conducted in April and May of this year and published Monday.

Recent swings in public opinion regarding the death penalty owe much of their impetus to political independents, Pew said, since in the last couple years opinions among Republicans and Democrats have remained relatively stable. The share of independents favoring capital punishment has undergone something of a surge in this period, increasing by a striking 8 percentage points (from 44 percent to 52 percent) between 2016 and 2018.

In a more extended time frame, support for capital punishment has declined among Democrats and independents while remaining fairly strong among Republicans.

Among Democrats, support for the death penalty has dropped by almost exactly half since 1996, falling from 71 percent to 35 percent.  Among independents, the decline in approval has been somewhat less, falling from 79 percent to 52 percent in the same period.

The share of Republicans favoring the death penalty, on the other hand, fell by 10 points during those years, from 87 percent to 77 percent, Pew said. Today, some three-quarters of Republicans (77 percent) support the death penalty, compared with 52 percent of independents and just 35 percent of Democrats.

Support for the death penalty continues to be conditioned by gender and race as well.

Among men, some six-in-ten (61 percent) support capital punishment while only 34 percent oppose it. Among women, on the other hand, views are almost evenly split, with 46 percent favoring the death penalty, and 45 percent opposing it.

More whites than non-whites favor capital punishment for murder convicts, with 59 percent of whites supporting the death penalty, compared with 47 percent of Hispanics and 36 percent of blacks.

Other demographic factors, such as age and religious affiliation, also affect public views toward capital punishment.

Among those younger than 30 views are split down the middle, with 47 percent favoring capital punishment for murderers and 46 percent opposing it, while in older age groups clear majorities support the death penalty.

As a group, white evangelical Protestants are the most among religious affiliations to support the use of the death penalty, with 73 percent in favor and just 19 percent against. While white mainline Protestants also support capital punishment by a significant margin (61 percent for, 30 percent against), among Catholics the divide is more marked. A majority of Catholics (53 percent) favor capital punishment, while 42 percent say they oppose it.

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