(For more recent public opinion data on the death penalty, see a 2011 analysis.)
by Robert Ruby, Senior Editor, and Allison Pond, Research Associate, Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life
Since the late 1960s, public support for the death penalty has experienced significant rises and dips, but surveys show it has never fallen below 50%. In fact, during the past 40 years, support for capital punishment has remained relatively high, reaching a peak of 80% in 1994.
Polls show that the share of the public in favor of the death penalty began rising around the time that the Supreme Court temporarily suspended all executions in 1972. (See An Impassioned Debate: An Overview of the Death Penalty in America.)
After peaking in the mid-1990s, the percentage of Americans in favor of capital punishment dropped, leveling off after 2000. Indeed, Pew Research Center surveys show that support for the death penalty for persons convicted of murder has fluctuated within a relatively narrow range of 62% to 68% since 2001, while opposition has ranged from 24% to 32% during this time. A Pew survey from August 2007 finds that 62% of Americans favor the death penalty, while 32% oppose it and 6% are unsure. Regarding lethal injection as a means of execution, a 2004 Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll finds that 75% of the public says that states should be allowed to use lethal injection, while 21% say it represents cruel and unusual punishment and should not be permitted.
Some of the sharpest differences in public opinion about the death penalty occur along racial lines. More than two-thirds of whites (68%) support the death penalty, while only 40% of blacks express the same opinion. Hispanics are evenly split on the issue; 48% support the death penalty, while 47% oppose it.
Political affiliation and ideology also are strong predictors of public opinion. More politically conservative individuals are more likely to support the death penalty, and the more politically liberal are more likely to oppose it. Thus, 82% of conservative Republicans support the death penalty; support is lowest among liberal Democrats, with just 41% of this group in favor of it. All the major Republican and Democratic presidential contenders say they support the death penalty, although some favor its use more broadly than do others.
Smaller differences exist among members of different religious traditions. Support for the death penalty is highest among white evangelical Protestants (74%), while white mainline Protestants and white non-Hispanic Catholics favor it at slightly lower rates (68% and 67%, respectively). Support is lowest among the religiously unaffiliated, but a solid majority of this group (59%) still favors capital punishment.
For most religious traditions, there are only slight differences in opinion on this issue between those who attend religious services at least once a week and those who attend less often. The one exception is white non-Hispanic Catholics. Among this group, those who attend services more frequently actually take a more liberal view on the death penalty: 39% of white non-Hispanic Catholics who attend religious services at least once a week oppose the death penalty, compared with only 22% of those who attend less often. (Compare public opinion with religious groups' official positions on capital punishment).