In recent years, there has been an increasing movement to abolish the death penalty in the United States. The U.S. is the only major country in the Western Hemisphere that still practices the death penalty and most countries worldwide have abolished it as a form of punishment. Proponents of the death penalty claim that it deters crime and is necessary for the worst offenders. Meanwhile, opponents suggest that the death penalty violates human rights and should be outlawed as “cruel and unusual punishment” under the Eighth Amendment.
We at Redfield & Wilton Strategies investigated public opinion on the future of the death penalty in the U.S. We found that a plurality of respondents (39%) were against abolishing the death penalty, while a third (33%) think it should be abolished.
Looking closer, however, a more nuanced story arises. Among 18 to 44-year-old respondents, a plurality (42%) are actually against the death penalty, with only roughly a quarter (26%) in favour of keeping it. The younger the age group, the more likely respondents are to agree that the death penalty should be abolished. Among 18 to 24-year-olds, nearly half (48%) oppose the death penalty, while only 23% are for it. Older respondents show the opposite pattern. Over half (55%) of our oldest respondents, aged 65+, believe that the death penalty should remain, while around a quarter (24%) would abolish it. Generational change may determine the future of the death penalty in the U.S.
Abolishing capital punishment is divided among partisan lines but is less controversial than other related issues. Among likely Trump voters in 2020, over half (51%) support the death penalty, while nearly a third (30%) think it should be abolished. Meanwhile, likely Biden voters are more divided. A plurality (37%) oppose the death penalty but nearly a third (30%) are in favor of it.
This partisan distinction tracks similar issues that we have polled in the past. For example, a greater proportion of likely Trump voters support the police and disagree with the anti-racism protests that have followed George Floyd’s death. Yet the 30% who wish to abolish the death penalty is greater than those who support the protestors, distrust the police, wish to “defund the police”, and support the new Minneapolis “community-led safety program,” according to our US national poll last month. Abolishing capital punishment is hence a less partisan issue than it is an age-related issue, it appears.
While the Federal Government goes ahead with its first execution in 17 years, this execution may be one of the last performed in the United States. As younger people gain voting power and influence, it is possible that a greater proportion of the population will support abolishing the death penalty. However, there is no guarantee that this shift in public opinion will translate into legislative changes unless there is significant organizing effort around the issue.