Dichotomous Dilemma

Alex Wilkie


Capital punishment has been a controversial topic in American public opinion discourse. The history of American public opinion on capital punishment is a unique opportunity to study how public opinion changes, is measured, and affects policy outcomes. This article examines US capital punishment opinion trends throughout recent history and aims to determine the root causes of these trends. It argues that dichotomous polls of the past that measured support for capital punishment in yes/no responses provided a narrow understanding of capital punishment discourse for policy makers, which inevitably led to more visible support for capital punishment than current, more detailed forms of polling suggest. Dichotomous polls benefitted Republicans over Democrats in past presidential elections which influenced Supreme Court judicial appointments that would further shape capital punishment discourse.

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