Guest Column: Behind the Death Penalty Cheers

One of the oddest moments of the GOP presidential primary debate Wednesday night in California occurred when the audience burst into applause in response to moderator Brian Williams’ recap of Gov. Rick Perry’s record of presiding over 234 executions.

Williams had not yet even finished asking his question when the crowd erupted with clapping and even whistles. The effusive audience applause in response to both Williams’ mention of Perry’s record and the governor’s full-throated, guilt-free answer seems to reflect a Republican primary audience that, like the governor, is untroubled by the death penalty, either in principle or in practice. 

Results from the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll and national polling confirm that one shouldn’t be surprised by the borderline atavistic response from an audience of Republican primary voters. It’s not news or even mildly shocking, of course, that Texas voters support the death penalty in substantial numbers, even in the face of doubts about the fairness of the process. Our polling regularly shows over 75 percent of self-reported registered voters support the death penalty either strongly or somewhat for those convicted of violent crimes. And there isn’t much ambivalence lurking in the distinction in support — the strong support is routinely over 50 percent. The overall levels of support in Texas are 10 to 15 percentage points higher than support for similar items in national polls (for example, see the Gallup trend here). 

In fact, Democratic identifiers in Texas also support the death penalty, or are ambivalent, in substantial numbers. In the same February 2010 survey, over 60 percent of self-identified Democrats expressed some support for the death penalty — again, a fairly common pattern in Texas, though about half of this support comes from the less enthusiastic “somewhat support” responses. Only 16 percent said they were “strongly opposed” to the death penalty. Compared to national surveys, the Texas numbers for Democratic support are again in the neighborhood of 10 or more points higher than national Democratic approval. (For recent Gallup survey data with partisan breakdowns on the death penalty, see here.)

The figures are taken from the February 2010 UT/Texas Tribune survey instead of more recent surveys for reasons I’ll explain shortly. More recent results from February 2011, the last time we asked a death penalty question in our Texas survey, were almost identical.

The numbers in Texas testify to the existence of a Republican voter base seemingly not fazed by questions about the integrity of the process in Texas, let alone the application of capital punishment by a government about which they seem highly skeptical and suspicious in many other contexts.

We conducted a statewide survey in February 2010, at the height of both the Republican gubernatorial primary contest (if you want to call it that) between Perry and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison. There was also substantial media coverage of the administration of the death penalty in Texas at that time, largely focused on the Cameron Todd Willingham case.  We wondered if the case was making an impression on public opinion about the death penalty, so we included a survey item that asked, “Generally speaking, do you believe the death penalty is applied fairly or unfairly in Texas today?” Fifty-nine percent judged it fair, 27 percent unfair, and 14 percent said they didn’t know.  (This was the only survey in which we asked this question, which is why I focus on the February 2010 results here.)

“Death penalty applied fairly or unfairly in Texas today?”

Support for death penaltyFairly (n=300)Unfairly (n=23)Don’t know (n=38)Total (n=361)
Strongly support 76% 39% 45% 70%
Somewhat support 19% 13% 26% 19%
Somewhat oppose 4% 13% 11% 6%
Strongly oppose 0.30% 22% 8% 3%
Don’t know 0.30% 13% 11% 2%

Source: February 2010 University of Texas / Texas Tribune Poll; N=800. MOE = +/- 3.46 percentage points. Numbers may not add up to 100 due to rounding.

If you cross-tabulate views on the fairness of the death penalty with results from the item gauging support for it, you get a rough idea of the extent to which doubts about fairness color support for the death penalty. Of those who think the death penalty is applied fairly, the vast majority support it (96 percent), and a big majority of those support it strongly. The belief that the process is unfair coexists with lower levels of support, but perhaps not as low as one might expect. Almost half of those who find the death penalty unfairly applied still support it at least somewhat. Of those who don’t know if it’s fair, 60 percent supported it.

If judgments about fairness seem to have only a diffuse impact on support for the death penalty in the overall survey sample, it is even more diffuse if we look only at Republican responses in order to get at the dynamics of the predominantly Republican audience moved to applaud Perry’s record-setting number of executions.

This exercise is limited by the overwhelming support for the death penalty among Republicans in Texas — 89 percent support it, 76 percent strongly — and relatively few Republicans who either think the death penalty is applied unfairly (only 7 percent) or don’t know (11 percent). But we still get an overall sense of the intense support for the death penalty among Republicans, even among the very few Republicans who possess any doubts about the process. Of the small number of Republican respondents who judge the death penalty unfairly applied, a plurality still strongly support it, and more support it than don’t. Among the larger number of Republicans who say they don’t know if the death penalty is fair, 60 percent still support it.

So even if the Republicans in the California audience at Wednesday night’s debate, like those nationally, were somewhat less intense in their support of the death penalty compared to Texans, survey results give us some insight into the enthusiasm with which the audience greeted Perry on the death penalty. He received two bursts of applause. One was for the recap of his record of presiding over a record number of executions, and the other was for expressing surety when invited to express doubts about the process. The governor is not losing sleep in the face of criticism of the process in Texas, and apparently neither is the Republican primary audience. Yet again, it seems like Perry and the Republican Party of 2012 are a match made in heaven. Cue the applause.

James Henson directs the Texas Politics Project in the Department of Government at the University of Texas. He also is co-director of the UT/Texas Tribune poll with Daron Shaw.

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