Only a handful of countries similar to the U.S. apply the “death penalty” as a punishment for murder. Although the death penalty has at times come under fire from both liberals and conservatives, surveys make it appear that overwhelming majorities of Americans support it.
Despite that, there are at least two reasons to question Americans’ commitment to supporting the death penalty. One is the changing political climate. In the 1990’s, politicians overwhelmingly supported executions in an attempt to appear “tough on crime.” Since then, however, studies have shown that the death penalty is an inefficient crime-deterrent; administering the death penalty is more expensive than handing down a life sentence, and significant racial disparities in sentencing exist. Bernie Sanders, a potential Democratic presidential candidate and currently a U.S. Senator, vocally opposes it. Likewise, Martin O’Malley, another potential Democratic presidential candidate, abolished the death penalty while Governor of Maryland, declaring the practice to be racially-biased and an ineffective deterrent to crime.
A second reason to take another look at is that most surveys fail to examine if proposing life in prison without the option of parole (LWP) is popular. When given an “up or down” vote, most people say they support the death penalty, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility that a different penalty would be more preferable if it were offered as a choice. We find that LWP is preferred by State students, especially when they are told that a plurality of Americans also feel that way.
To better understand opinions about the death penalty, we randomly assigned students to read different versions of the question. Some of the time, students were told majorities overwhelmingly supported the death penalty, while other times they were told more supported LWP. A third group wasn’t told anything about what public opinion looked like. We also changed the answer options so that half of the time across these three version students had to say if they supported or opposed the death penalty, but in the other half they could choose between it and LWP.
When respondents had to choose, 47% supported the death penalty versus opposed it. Students’ support, though, depended on whether they believed everyone else felt similarly. If they were told most of the public supported the death penalty, their support increased to 57%. However, if respondents were told more people supported LWP as an alternative to the death penalty, only 43% expressed support for the practice.
When students were given the opportunity to choose LWP over the death penalty, only 36% supported the death penalty. Incredibly, that support climbed to 57% when respondents were told support for the death penalty remains solid, and dropped to 33% when they were told more people support alternatives to the death penalty.
Unsurprisingly, party ID was important for the way respondents answered the questions. Regardless of what version of the question they received, Republicans were more likely to support the death penalty and Democrats were more likely to oppose it or support LWP. There was more variation in Independents’ opinion– they were more likely to support the death penalty if they were told there was majority support and were not given the option to choose LWP. Interestingly, telling respondents that there was majority support for the death penalty had the biggest impact on the way respondents answered, irrespective of party ID.
Our results indicate that a majority of students prefer LWP to the death penalty. When forced to say they support or oppose the death penalty, though, without mentioning alternatives exist, their support for it grows. The problem is that most surveys fail to measure opinions about LWP, creating the illusions of steady support for the death penalty. Yet, students’ support for the death penalty is even more contingent on whether or not they are led to believe others feel similarly. This could be interpreted as anecdotal evidence of “the spiral of silence” – a political science and mass communication theory that refers to the tendency of individuals to not voice their opinion when they feel it is in direct opposition of the majority opinion.
These are the results for this semester’s “Big Poll,” conducted bi-annualy since 2010 (November 5-10, 2015). The survey was administered over the internet to a random sample of 4,500 NCSU undergraduates, generating a 24% response rate for completed surveys (and 26% for partially completed). Sampling error is +/-2.93% for completed interviews and questions asked of the full sample; it is higher for sub-groups and questions asked of only portions of the full sample.
In addition to sampling error, other forms of error occur in surveys, such as confusion about question wording or the order of questions, but these are not precisely quantifiable. We do not apply post-stratification sample weights to adjust for possible demographic imbalances in our sample because our measured demographics closely approximate the known student parameters for age, year in school, and gender. Weighting the data would be unlikely to change the reported results by more than 1-2% percentage points for any question results.
Click here to see the full set of results: Toplines Fall 2015 Big Poll