The Trump administration has executed 10 people over the last five months — the first federal executions in nearly two decades. The government is trying to execute three more people before the inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who now opposes the death penalty. An outgoing administration has not carried out an execution after losing reelection since 1889. And this has already been the most federal executions conducted in one year since 1896.
But most voters have barely noticed the unusual federal execution spree, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov survey. Only 13% of voters say they’ve heard a lot about the news that President Donald Trump resumed the practice of federal executions this year. Four in 10 say they’d heard nothing about the executions at all.
The Trump administration resumed federal executions in July, following a 17-year hiatus that was caused by legal challenges, drug availability issues and an Obama-era review of capital punishment. When then-Attorney General William Barr announced the decision, he claimed the people selected for death were the “worst criminals.” In reality, the cases are more complicated. They include people with an intellectual disability or untreated mental illness, as well as people who were barely old enough to be sentenced to death. Some were given the harshest punishment even though they were not the ones to pull the trigger. The people chosen for execution are disproportionately Black, an indication of the racist origins of the punishment.
Voters narrowly favor Trump’s decision to resume the executions, with 44% approving, 38% disapproving, and the remainder unsure. Reactions are sharply divided along partisan lines, but Trump’s backers are more in agreement as a group than his opposition. Roughly three-quarters of Republican voters approve of the decision, while a smaller 63% majority of Democratic voters disapprove.
Although the Trump administration’s spate of executions has not attracted widespread national attention, it has mobilized death penalty opponents to ramp up pressure on the incoming Biden administration to put an end to the practice.
Biden, who sponsored the 1994 crime bill that put several people on death row, now says he opposes capital punishment. He has pledged to work with Congress to pass legislation to eliminate the federal death penalty and “incentivize” states to do the same. But activists and some lawmakers are pushing for more decisive action: As president, Biden could empty the federal death row by commuting the sentences of the 52 people condemned to death, and instead giving them life sentences without parole or a lesser punishment. This would prevent the people who are currently on death row from being executed by a future president if Congress fails to pass legislation.
Just 27% of voters want Biden to change the sentences of prisoners on federal death row so that they instead receive life in prison, with 45% saying Biden should not commute their sentences and another 28% saying they weren’t sure. Republican voters oppose such commutations, 65% to 12%. Democrats favor them by a far more modest 41% to 23%.
Support for the use of the death penalty continues to outstrip opposition: 46% of voters say they’d prefer the federal government to allow the death penalty, with 28% saying they’d prefer it to be banned, and the remaining quarter are not sure. That could suggest a minor downtick in support since a July 2019 HuffPost/YouGov poll, when 54% of voters supported allowing a federal death penalty. But the share of voters favoring an outright ban, which stood at 30% last summer, hasn’t similarly moved.
The change is due instead mostly to a rising number of undecideds ― a shift that implies opinions on the issue are often less than firmly set. Those most open to changing their minds are also the least likely to be paying attention to the latest developments. Of voters who currently say they’re unsure about the federal death penalty, 59% reported having heard nothing about the Trump administration’s executions.
Views remain sharply polarized, with Republican voters 34 percentage points likelier than Democratic voters to favor allowing the federal death penalty. Demographic divides along generational, racial and educational lines exist as well: Voters older than 65 are 13 points likelier to be in favor than those under age 30, white voters are 15 points more supportive than Black voters, and those without a college degree are 13 points more supportive than degree-holders.
The survey also finds significant doubts among the public about the effectiveness of the punishment and the impartiality with which it’s applied.
Voters are split on whether the death penalty is applied fairly, with one-third saying it is, another third saying it’s applied unfairly, and the remaining third saying they’re not sure. Nearly half (47%) say the death penalty does not help prevent crime, compared to the 31% who say they view it as a deterrent.
Just 6% of Black voters say they believe the death penalty is generally applied fairly, compared to 38% of white voters who say the same.
Public support for the death penalty has fallen from its peak in the 1990s, although it remains the consensus position. Gallup, which has tracked the issue since 1936, found this year that 55% of Americans favor the death penalty for a person convicted of murder, down from 80% in 1994.
Use the widget below to further explore the results of the HuffPost/YouGov survey, using the menu at the top to select survey questions and the buttons at the bottom to filter the data by subgroups:
The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Dec. 16-20 among U.S. registered voters, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the population.
HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.
Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some but not all potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate.
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