The use of capital punishment has fallen to historically low levels in recent years. This year, Virginia became the first Southern state to outlaw the practice.
Support for the death penalty has been in decline since the 1990s, when close to 4 in 5 Americans were for it. On the campaign trail last year, Joe Biden committed to ending capital punishment nationwide (though he hasn’t taken any major steps to follow through on that since taking office).
Still, a solid majority of Americans continue to favor keeping the death penalty, driven by the conviction that it’s morally justified in cases of murder — even though most of the country recognizes that there are racial disparities in how it’s doled out, and an overwhelming majority admits that it sometimes results in the death of an innocent person.
We can say all this with relative certainty thanks to a Pew Research Center poll released Wednesday. Sixty percent considered the death penalty acceptable for people convicted of murder, according to the survey of Pew’s online American Trends Panel.
But arguably the most intriguing part of the report wasn’t the numbers themselves. It was how those numbers might have looked, if the pollsters had used an older method: phone calls.
Until this year, Pew contacted at least some of its respondents via phone, allowing researchers to compare results between so-called modes. They found that on certain policy-related questions — particularly morally or ethically sensitive ones — there could be significant differences between people’s responses to self-administered online surveys and to live telephone interviewers.
Polls on the death penalty presented one of the most glaring examples. More than other issues — and far more than on questions about candidate choice, which generally aren’t as deeply impacted by survey mode — capital punishment drew meaningfully different responses.
Last year, participants of Pew’s online panel were 13 points more likely than those surveyed by phone to say they approved of the death penalty. Among Democrats, there was a particularly strong aversion to expressing support via phone: In an August 2020 Pew poll, just 32% of Democratic respondents via phone said they supported the death penalty, while 49% of online Democratic respondents did.
If Pew had only reported its phone poll results last summer, it would have shown that support for capital punishment was down to 52%, more than 20 percentage points off its high in the 1990s. Instead, its online poll revealed that closer to two-thirds were in favor of it.
There are a number of issues that make phone polls different from online surveys, including the fact that they tend to yield a slightly different sample of respondents. But Pew’s researchers have taken this into account, and they’re “absolutely” convinced that so-called social desirability bias is the strongest factor driving mode differences here, said Courtney Kennedy, Pew’s director of survey research.
“It’s a bit of a touchy subject, it’s kind of sensitive, and admitting that you hold an opinion that has such profound implications for somebody else — not everybody wants to engage with that with a stranger,” Kennedy said, referring to questions about the death penalty.
Carroll Doherty, the director of political research at Pew, said that capital punishment was up there with immigration on the list of issues where response is most affected by survey mode.
The stark differences among Democratic respondents indicate “that this is an issue on which they’re kind of cross-pressured,” Doherty said. “You see many Democrats saying the death penalty is morally justified in cases of murder, and on the other hand, Democrats are much more likely than Republicans to have doubts about its implementation, especially whether there’s racial bias.”
One thing that’s consistent in Pew’s research: Republicans tend to be far more supportive of capital punishment than Democrats. Likewise, white Americans are considerably more supportive than Black Americans, and less concerned about racial disparities.
Among Republicans and independents who lean toward the GOP, 77% said in the new poll that they supported the death penalty. And 80% called its use morally justified “when someone commits a crime like murder.” Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents, just 46% favored the practice; 51% called it morally justified.
Even among Republicans, however, there was broad acknowledgment that it’s impossible to ensure innocent people won’t be executed. Just 31% of Republicans and leaners said there were “adequate safeguards” to that effect. Only 12% of Democrats and their leaners said so.
And most Americans — 63% — doubted that the death penalty successfully discouraged crime. Even among those who favored its use, just 50% said it was a deterrent to serious crimes.
At 63%, white Americans were far more likely to support the death penalty than Black Americans, who were evenly split. The inverse was true on the question of whether the death penalty is applied unfairly across race, something that studies consistently find to be true.
Fully 85% of Black people said that whites were less likely to be put to death for similar crimes, but white respondents were evenly divided on the question.