Death Penalty is Politically Irrelevant

The Death Penalty Joins Curing Celiac Sprue on List of Irrelevant Issues

I was recently interviewed on POTUS about the role of the death penalty in the presidential election – or rather the lack of a role for the death penalty so far. POTUS, the XM radio station devoted solely to the 2008 Presidential campaign, is a political geek's dream, there is finally something to listen to while reading The Note and watching C-SPAN.

The host, Scott Walterman, wanted to know why the death penalty is on the very short list of topics not discussed so far in the election. Given the history of the issue (think Gov. Mike Dukakis’s debate answer, and Gov. Bill Clinton leaving the NH campaign to execute Ricky Ray Rector) one would reasonably expect that the death penalty would be an easy talking point.

The easy answer is that the issue probably isn't being raised because the campaigns' polls show it doesn't move voters. The American people are deeply ambivalent about the death penalty; they like it in theory but have real problems with it in practice. The death penalty is the equivalent of the local opera house: we like that it's there but never actually attend.

The more complicated answer is two-fold.

Like all issues, the death penalty is a metaphor. Most of us most of the time don't vote on issues. We vote on gut feelings, impressions and personalities. We say things like, "he doesn't look Presidential," "he seems honest," "I don't trust him," or "he's strong." Candidates talk about their issue positions to prove they are one thing or another – Clinton's execution of Ricky Ray Rector proved Clinton was a tough new Democrat; Dukakis's answer failed because it was dispassionate and proved he really was a unfeeling technocrat. The death penalty wasn't the point of either action; what it stood in for was.

The death penalty of 2008 (or 2004 or 2005) is not the same death penalty of 1988 or 1992. The old metaphor of "death penalty means tough" is gone. The new death penalty is about innocent people sentenced to death, about lawyers falling asleep during trials, about DNA testing, and about massive diversion of resources. Raising the death penalty now would not make voters think "strong" or "unfeeling" – it would make people think "what about innocent people?" or "if you're doing the death penalty, what aren't you doing?"

As a metaphor, the death penalty is muddled at best, and at worst can make voters move the other way (there is some polling data to indicate the only people who care enough about capital punishment enough to vote on it are those who oppose it). Over the past 10 years, the death penalty has been redefined and now stands in for something new.

(For more on the new death penalty debate see the work of Penn State University professor Frank Baumgartner and his forthcoming book, The Decline of the Death Penalty and the Discovery of Innocence.)

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