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U.S. Support for Death Penalty Holds Above Majority Level

U.S. Support for Death Penalty Holds Above Majority Level

Story Highlights

  • 55% favor death penalty for convicted murderers
  • Support has been below 60% since 2016
  • Republicans' support little changed in past two decades

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' support for the death penalty continues to be lower than at any point in nearly five decades. For a fourth consecutive year, fewer than six in 10 Americans (55%) are in favor of the death penalty for convicted murderers. Death penalty support has not been lower since 1972, when 50% were in favor.

Line graph. 55% of Americans in 2020 are in favor of and 43% opposed to the death penalty for persons convicted of murder.

Gallup has asked Americans whether they are "in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder" since 1936, when 58% said they were. In all but one survey -- in 1966 -- more Americans have been in favor than opposed. The 1960s and early 1970s brought many legal challenges to the death penalty, culminating in a 1972 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that invalidated state death penalty statutes. After the high court upheld revised state death penalty laws in 1976, support for capital punishment grew, peaking at 80% in 1994, a time of heightened public concern about crime.

This year's results are based on a Sept. 30-Oct. 15 survey. Gallup occasionally asks another question to gauge death penalty support, with respondents indicating whether they believe the better punishment for murder is the death penalty or life imprisonment with no possibility of parole. In the most recent update, from 2019, Americans favored life imprisonment over the death penalty by 60% to 36%, a dramatic shift from prior years.

Many Americans are thus conflicted on the death penalty. The two Gallup trend questions indicate that about one in five Americans express theoretical support for use of the death penalty but believe life imprisonment is a better way to punish convicted murderers.

Republican Support for Death Penalty Remains High

Gallup began asking its historical death penalty trend question in its annual Crime survey beginning in 2000. During this time, there have been two notable shifts in death penalty attitudes. Between 2011 and 2016, the percentage expressing support showed a drop to 61% from 66% in the preceding decade. In the past four years, support has fallen further to an average 56%.

Both Democrats and independents show declines in their support for the death penalty, including similar drops (eight and seven percentage points, respectively) since 2016. Between the 2000-2010 and 2011-2016 time periods, Democratic support dropped more (eight points) than independent support did (three points).

Now, 39% of Democrats and 54% of independents are in favor of the death penalty.

Meanwhile, Republicans' support for the death penalty has held steady, with 79% currently supporting it, unchanged since 2016 and barely lower than the 80% registered between 2000 and 2010.

Changes in Support for the Death Penalty, by Political Party
Figures are the percentage who say they are in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder
2000-2010 2011-2016 2017-2020 Change since 2011-2016
% % % pct. pts.
U.S. adults 66 61 56 -5
Republicans 80 79 79 0
Independents 64 61 54 -7
Democrats 55 47 39 -8

Demographic Trends May Lead to Further Erosion in Death Penalty Support

Changes in the U.S. population appear to be a factor in declining death penalty support in recent years. Groups that are constituting a greater share of the U.S. adult population over time -- including millennials and Generation Z, non-White adults and college graduates -- all show below-average support for the death penalty.

  • Over the past four years, an average of 45% of those in Generation Z (those born after 1996) have favored the death penalty, as have 51% of millennials (those born between 1980 and 1996). That compares with 57% of those in Generation X, 59% of baby boomers and 62% of those born before 1946.

  • Forty-six percent of non-White Americans, versus 61% of Non-Hispanic White Americans, support the death penalty.

  • Among college graduates, 46% favor the death penalty, compared with 60% of those without a college degree.

To be sure, demographic change does not account for all of the attitudinal shift toward the death penalty, as older generations, White adults and college nongraduates are all less supportive of the death penalty now than they were in 2016.

Changes in Support for the Death Penalty, by Generation, Race and Educational Attainment
Figures are the percentage who say they are in favor of the death penalty for a person convicted of murder
2000-2010 2011-2016 2017-2020 Change since 2011-2016
% % % pct. pts.
Generation Z (born 1997-2002) n/a n/a 45 n/a
Millennials (born 1980-1996) 61 55 51 -4
Generation X (born 1965-1979) 66 63 57 -6
Baby boomers (born 1946-1964) 67 64 59 -5
Traditionalists (born before 1946) 67 65 62 -3
Non-Hispanic White adults 70 67 61 -6
Non-White adults 52 46 46 0
College graduates 60 53 46 -7
College nongraduates 69 65 60 -5

Bottom Line

Attitudes toward the death penalty have varied greatly since Gallup first polled Americans on the topic more than 80 years ago. The percentage favoring it has been as low as 42% and as high as 80%. The most recent readings are toward the lower end of the range, driven by demographic changes in the U.S. population and attitudinal evolution. If these trends continue, the percentage of U.S. adults who favor the death penalty will drop below 50% in the near future.

As public opinion has trended away from favoring the death penalty, state laws have also changed. Twenty-two states do not allow the death penalty by law, with nearly half of those having enacted their current laws in the past two decades. Three additional states -- California, Oregon and Pennsylvania -- have laws permitting the death penalty, but their governors have issued moratoriums on its use.

Consistent with partisans' preferences on the issue, most of the states that allow the death penalty are Republican-leaning, and most of those that prohibit its use are Democratic-leaning.

View complete question responses and trends (PDF download).

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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