The Pew Research Center has released a poll showing that 54 percent of Americans favor the death penalty for people convicted of murder. That’s up from 49 percent two years ago. (As Kent Scheidegger has explained, this number understates opposition to abolishing the death penalty, but I’m focused here on the trend).
The death penalty has always had the support of a plurality of Americans. However, that support declined dramatically in the past 20 years. In 1996, 78 percent of Americans supported it compared to only 18 who opposed it. Today, the split is 54-39.
But the latest Pew poll shows support for the death penalty to be increasing. This is consistent with a recent Gallup poll in which 62 percent of Americans viewed capital punishment as “morally acceptable.” A year earlier, 58 percent felt that way.
Pew found that the uptick in support for death penalty was driven by the views of independents. Most Republicans support capital punishment; most Democrats oppose it, and this hasn’t changed. But among independents, support has risen from 44 to 52 percent in the last two years.
If one were to speculate as to the cause of this shift in sentiment, the logical starting point would be the increase in violent crime. There is certainly a correlation between the decrease in support and decrease in violent crime over the past twenty years. It’s reasonable to suspect that the increase in support has something considerable to do with the increase in violent crime.
Thus, Republicans should be all the more wary of embracing leniency in sentencing. Increasing crime and the opioid epidemic are likely to undercut any desire among Republican and independent voters to be more lenient towards criminals. “Law and order” will likely make a comeback as vote-driving issue. Republicans should want to be on their traditional hard line side of the issue.