Are Death Penalty Poll Results a Good Indicator of a Future Vote on the Issue?

Joel Fox
Editor and Co-Publisher of Fox and Hounds Daily

If you take the results of Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) poll question on the death penalty at face value you could conclude that Gov. Gavin Newsom is a pretty persuasive fellow. The survey showed that all adults favor life imprisonment without the possibility of parole over the death penalty by two to one (62% to 31%.)

After the governor made his pronouncement on death penalty moratoriums, PPIC pollsters decided to test the question of punishment for first-degree murder even though the survey was already in progress. The results showed the widest spread amongst respondents between the life and death options since 2000 in PPIC polls.

Yet, the result doesn’t necessarily pre-sage how a vote on an anti-death penalty measure would come out.

The last time PPIC recorded a death penalty question was 2012. At the time, the life imprisonment option also outpaced the death penalty for murder cases, 55% to 38%. Yet, when ballot initiatives on the death penalty came before voters in 2016, they rejected the measure to eliminate the death penalty (47% to 53%) and passed an initiative to speed up the death penalty (51% to 49%).

Are the poll results a good marker on where the voters are? (Likely voters in the PPIC poll still favored the life imprisonment approach but the margin was closer: 58% for life imprisonment; 38% for death penalty.)

A political campaign over the issue could change sentiments disclosed in the poll just as occurred the last time voters got to vote on the issue. Imagine hearing about some of the brutal killers on death row such as those described in a recent column http://www.foxandhoundsdaily.com/2019/03/newsom-supports-killers-rapists-and-torturers-over-victims-and-their-survivors/ by Michele Hanisee, president of the Association of Los Angeles District Attorneys.

There were no pro or con arguments presented to those PPIC polled. The question simply asked respondents if they agreed that first-degree murders should face life imprisonment without possibility of parole or the death penalty.

PPIC president and poll guru Mark Baldassare agreed that a campaign against a death penalty could change attitudes. “Initiative opponents can provide many reasons for people to vote no and most citizens’ initiatives fail at the ballot, so there is no certainty about what might happen if there is a ballot initiative.” But he added, “Still, it’s worth noting that the political landscape and public opinion have significantly shifted since the earlier polling and initiatives.”

Perhaps the result of an anti-death penalty initiative effort will depend on the final point Baldassare raised:  “The political makeup of the 2020 electorate would also play an important role in the outcome.”

As would the type of campaigns on the pro and con sides of the death penalty.

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