Political Party Platforms and The Death Penalty

For additional information on Professor Frank Baumgartner's Index of Death Penalty Public Opinion, click here.

2016 Party Platforms

2016 Democratic Party Platform

Calls for the abolition of the death penalty, which it describes as “a cruel and unusual form of punishment" that "has no place” in the nation. 

 

Criminal Justice 

We will abolish the death penalty, which has proven to be a cruel and unusual form of punishment. It has no place in the United States of America. The application of the death penalty is arbitrary and unjust. The cost to taxpayers far exceeds those of life imprisonment. It does not deter crime. And, exonerations show a dangerous lack of reliability for what is an irreversible punishment.

2016 Republican Party Platform

Decries the "over-federalization of criminal justice," says the constitutionality of the death penalty is "firmly settled," and condemns the U.S. Supreme Court for what it calls the "erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment":

Ensuring Safe Neighborhoods: Criminal Justice and Prison Reform

... [T]he next president must not sow seeds of division and distrust between the police and the people they have sworn to serve and protect. The Republican Party, a party of law and order, must make clear in words and action that every human life matters. ...

The over-federalization of criminal justice is one of many ways in which the government in Washington has intruded beyond its proper jurisdiction. The essential role of federal law enforcement personnel in protecting federal property and combating interstate crime should not be compromised by diversion to matters properly handled by state and local authorities. ...

The constitutionality of the death penalty is firmly settled by its explicit mention in the Fifth Amendment. With the murder rate soaring in our great cities, we condemn the Supreme Court’s erosion of the right of the people to enact capital punishment in their states. 

2012 Party Platforms

2012 Democratic Party Platform

Says use of the death penalty “must not be arbitrary”:

Public Safety, Justice, and Crime Prevention.

In the last four years, rates of serious crimes, like murder, rape, and robbery, have reached 50-year lows, but there is more work to do. … We understand the disproportionate effects of crime, violence, and incarceration on communities of color and are committed to working with those communities to find solutions.

We will continue to fight inequalities in our criminal justice system. We believe that the death penalty must not be arbitrary. DNA testing should be used in all appropriate circumstances, defendants should have effective assistance of counsel, and the administration of justice should be fair and impartial.

2012 Republican Party Platform

Supports the death penalty:

Justice for All: Safe Neighborhoods and Prison Reform

Courts should have the option of imposing the death penalty in capital murder cases.

2008 Party Platforms

2008 Democratic Party Platform

Says use of the death penalty “must not be arbitrary”:

Criminal Justice

As Democrats, we are committed to being smart on crime. … We will continue to fight inequalities in our criminal justice system. We believe that the death penalty must not be arbitrary. DNA testing should be used in all appropriate circumstances, defendants should have effective assistance of counsel. In all death row cases, and thorough postconviction reviews should be available.

2008 Republican Party Platform

Supports the death penalty “in capital murder cases and other instances of heinous crime” and opposes judicial review of death sentences where the defendant’s guilt of the underlying crime is not at issue:

Appointing Constitutionalist Judges for the Nation’s Courts

… [We] deplore the Court’s arbitrary extension of Americans’ habeas corpus rights to enemy combatants held abroad. We object to the Court’s unwarranted interference in the administration of the death penalty in this country for the benefit of savage criminals whose guilt is not at issue. …

Locking Up Criminals

Criminals behind bars cannot harm the general public. To that end: …

  • Courts must have the option of imposing the death penalty in capital murder cases and other instances of heinous crime, while federal review of those sentences should be streamlined to focus on claims of innocence and to prevent delaying tactics by defense attorneys.

2004 Party Platforms

2004 Democratic Party Platform

No mention of the death penalty:

Crime and violence.

While terrorism poses an especially menacing threat to our nation, a strong America must remain vigilant against the scourge of homegrown crime as well. … To keep our streets safe for our families, we support tough punishment of violent crime and smart efforts to reintegrate former prisoners into our communities as productive citizens.

2004 Republican Party Platform

Supports the death penalty:

Protecting Our Rights, Fighting Criminals, and Supporting Victims

We support courts having the option to impose the death penalty in capital murder cases.

2000 Party Platforms

2000 Democratic Party Platform

Touted “tougher punishments” and expansion of the death penalty:

Fighting Crime

Democrats believe government’s most basic duty is to establish law, order, and freedom and keep citizens safe from crime. …

Bill Clinton and Al Gore … put in place … tougher punishments - including the death penalty - for those that dare to terrorize the innocent, and smarter prevention to stop crime before it even starts. …. They funded new prison cells, and expanded the death penalty for cop killers and terrorists.

With Al Gore as President, America won’t go back. We will move forward. … We believe that in death penalty cases, DNA testing should be used in all appropriate circumstances, and defendants should have effective assistance of counsel. In all death row cases, we encourage thorough post-conviction reviews.

2000 Republican Party Platform

Praises “the Republican Congress” for enacting “an effective deterrent death penalty” and supports “capital punishment for drug traffickers who take innocent life”:

Justice And Safety

Most Americans over the age of fifty remember a time when streets and schoolyards were safe, doors unlocked, windows unbarred. The elderly did not live in fear and the young did not die in gunfire. That world is gone, swept away in the social upheaval provoked by the welfare, drug, and crime policies of the 1960s and later. …

… [W]e recognize the crucial leadership role the president and the Congress should play in restoring public safety. The congressional half of that team, in cooperation with governors and local officials who are the front line against crime, has been hard at work. Within proper federal jurisdiction, the Republican Congress has enacted legislation for an effective deterrent death penalty, restitution to victims, removal of criminal aliens, and vigilance against terrorism.

Children At Risk

… in a Republican administration the Department of Justice will require all federal prosecutors to aggressively pursue drug dealers, from the kingpins to the lackeys. We renew our support for capital punishment for drug traffickers who take innocent life.

1996 Party Platforms

1996 Democratic Party Platform

Touted “law and order,” enacting an expanded federal death penalty, and limiting death penalty appeals:

Fighting crime.

Today’s Democratic Party believes the first responsibility of government is law and order. …

Tough punishment. We believe that people who break the law should be punished, and people who commit violent crimes should be punished severely. President Clinton made three-strikes-you’re-out the law of the land, to ensure that the most dangerous criminals go to jail for life, with no chance of parole. We established the death penalty for nearly 60 violent crimes, including murder of a law enforcement officer, and we signed a law to limit appeals. …

Battling illegal drugs. …. The Crime Bill established the death penalty for drug kingpins.

1996 Republican Party Platform

Expresses “strong support of capital punishment,” including for non-homicidal rape and for “drug kingpins”; describes pro-death penalty judicial appointments as making the courts “an instrument of justice”:

Getting Tough on Crime

During Bill Clinton’s tenure, America has become a more fearful place, especially for the elderly and for women and children. Violent crime has turned our homes into prisons, our streets and schoolyards into battlegrounds. …

… Bill Clinton hypocritically endorsed our Victim’s Rights Amendment while naming judges who opposed capital punishment, turned felons loose, and even excused murder as a form of social protest. Bob Dole, the next Republican president will end that nonsense and make our courts once again an instrument of justice.

We believe it is time to revisit the Supreme Court’s arbitrary decision of 1977 that protects even the most vicious rapists from the death penalty. … We continue our strong support of capital punishment for those who commit heinous federal crimes; including the kingpins of the narcotics trade.

1992 Party Platforms

1992 Democratic Party Platform

No direct mention of capital punishment. However, the platform said the following on “combatting crime and drugs”:

Combatting Crime and Drugs

Crime is a relentless danger to our communities. Over the last decade, crime has swept through our country at an alarming rate. During the 1980s, more than 200,000 Americans were murdered, four times the number who died in Vietnam. Violent crimes rose by more than 16 percent since 1988 and nearly doubled since 1975. In our country today, a murder is committed every 25 minutes, a rape every six minutes, a burglary every 10 seconds. The pervasive fear of crime disfigures our public life and diminishes our freedom. …

To empower America’s communities, Democrats pledge to restore government as the upholder of basic law and order for crime-ravaged communities. …

1992 Republican Party Platform

Criticizes Democrats for refusing to enact a federal death penalty and for rejecting efforts to limit habeas corpus appeals, and supports the death penalty “for major drug traffickers”:

Safe Homes and Streets. One of the first duties of government is to protect the public security—to maintain law and order so that citizens are free to pursue the fruits of life and liberty.

Violent crime is the gravest domestic threat to our way of life. It has turned our communities into battlegrounds, playgrounds into grave yards. …

Congressional Democrats … reject our reform of habeas corpus law to prevent the appellate process from becoming a lawyers’ game to thwart justice through endless appeals and procedural delays. They refuse to enact effective procedures to reinstate the death penalty for the most heinous crimes. They reject tougher, mandatory sentences for career criminals….

We oppose legalizing or decriminalizing drugs. … There is no excuse for the wanton destruction of human life. We therefore support the stiffest penalties, including the death penalty, for major drug traffickers.

1988 Party Platforms

1988 Democratic Party Platform

No reference to the death penalty or criminal punishments. Sole references to crime were support programs for children to prevent crime and a commitment to help crime victims.

WE BELIEVE … that the strength of our families is enhanced by programs to prevent abuse and malnutrition among children, crime, dropouts and pregnancy among teenagers and violence in the family….

WE BELIEVE that the federal government should provide increased assistance to local criminal justice agencies, enforce a ban on “cop killer” bullets that have no purpose other than the killing and maiming of law enforcement officers, reinforce our commitment to help crime victims, and assume a leadership role in securing the safety of our neighborhoods and homes.

1988 Republican Party Platform

Pledges to “reestablish the federal death penalty” and limit federal habeas corpus review of criminal cases:

Crime

Republicans want a free and open society for every American. That means more than economic advancement alone. It requires the safety and security of persons and their property. It demands an end to crime. …

We will forge ahead with the Republican anti-crime agenda: …

  • We will reestablish the federal death penalty….
  • We will reform cumbersome habeas corpus procedures, used to delay cases and prevent punishment of the guilty.

1984 Party Platforms

1984 Democratic Party Platform

No reference to the death penalty or criminal punishments. The platform rejects “permissive liberalism” and “static conservatism” as approaches to reducing crime:

Crime

No problem has worried Americas more persistently over the past 20 years than the problem of crime. Crime and the fear of crime affect us all, but the impact is greatest on poor Americans who live in our cities. Neither a permissive liberalism nor a static conservatism is the answer to reducing crime. …

Although the primary responsibility for law enforcement rests at the local level. Democrats believe the federal government can play an important role by encouraging local innovation and the implementation of new crime control methods as their effectiveness is shown.

1984 Republican Party Platform

Supports the use of capital punishment “where appropriate” and “carried out humanely.” Touts passage by “the Republican Senate” of legislation to restore federal death penalty:

Crime

One of the major responsibilities of government is to ensure the safety of its citizens. Their security is vital to their health and to the well-being of their neighborhoods and communities. The Reagan Administration is committed to making America safe for families and individuals.

In addition, the Republican Senate has overwhelmingly passed Administration-backed legislation which would:

  • Restore a constitutionally valid federal death penalty ….

The best way to deter crime is to increase the probability of detection and to make punishment certain and swift. As a matter of basic philosophy, we advocate preventive rather than merely corrective measures. Republicans advocate sentencing reform and secure, adequate prison construction. We concur with the American people’s approval of capital punishment where appropriate and will ensure that it is carried out humanely.

1980 Party Platforms

1980 Democratic Party Platform

No reference to the death penalty or criminal sentencing. Emphasizes “rehabilitation of offenders” and federal assistance to crime victims:

Law Enforcement

The Democratic Party supports the enactment of a revised federal criminal code which simplifies the currently complex federal criminal law in order to make our federal criminal justice efforts more effective, and repeals antiquated laws while fully protecting all civil liberties. …

We must continue and strengthen efforts at prison reform, to upgrade the safety of our penal institutions, to enhance rehabilitation of offenders, and to lower the recidivism level.

We support federal assistance to the victims of crime, including special programs to assist the elderly and to aid the victims of rape and domestic violence. Further efforts should be made to demonstrate the feasibility of restitution by the perpetrators of crime.

1980 Republican Party Platform

Supports capital punishment:

Crime

Safety and security are vital to the health and well-being of people in their neighborhoods and communities. …

Just as vital to efforts to stem crime is the fair but firm and speedy application of criminal penalties. The existence and application of strong penalties are effective disincentives to criminal actions. Yet these disincentives will only be as strong as our court system’s willingness to use them.

We believe that the death penalty serves as an effective deterrent to capital crime and should be applied by the federal government and by states which approve it as an appropriate penalty for certain major crimes.

1976 Party Platforms

1976 Democratic Party Platform

No reference to the death penalty. Decries “the raging and unchecked growth of crime,” calls for “swift and sure” punishment and “criminal sentences that provide punishment that actually punishes and rehabilitation that actually rehabilitates”:

Law Enforcement and Law Observance

[T]he raging and unchecked growth of crime seriously impairs the confidence of many of our citizens in their ability to walk on safe streets, to live securely in peaceful and happy homes, and to work safely in their places of business. Fear mounts along with the crime rate. … Recognizing that law enforcement is essentially a local responsibility, we declare that control of crime is an urgent national priority and pledge the efforts of the Democratic Party to insure that the federal government act effectively to reverse these trends and to be an effective partner to reverse cities and states in a well-coordinated war on crime.

We must restore confidence in the criminal justice system by insuring that detection, conviction and punishment of lawbreakers is swift and sure; that the criminal justice system is just and efficient; that jobs, decent housing and educational opportunities provide a real alternative to crime to those who suffer enforced poverty and injustice We pledge equally vigorous prosecution and punishment for corporate crime, consumer fraud and deception; programs to combat child abuse and crimes against the elderly; criminal laws that reflect national needs; application of the law with a balanced and fair hand; a judiciary that renders equal justice for all; criminal sentences that provide punishment that actually punishes and rehabilitation that actually rehabilitates; and a correctional system emphasizing effective job training, educational and post-release programs. Only such measures will restore the faith of the citizens in our criminal justice system.

Toward these ends, we support a major reform of the criminal justice system, but we oppose any legislative effort to introduce repressive and anti-civil libertarian measures in the guise of reform of the criminal code.

1976 Republican Party Platform

Leaves it to each state to decide “whether it wishes to impose the death penalty” and calls crime fighting “primarily a local responsibility:

A Safe and Just Society

Every American has a right to be protected from criminals. Violence has no place in our land. A society that excuses crime will eventually fall victim to it. The American people have been subjected to an intolerable wave of violent crime. …

Fighting crime is—and should be—primarily a local responsibility. …

Each state should have the power to decide whether it wishes to impose the death penalty for certain crimes.

1972 Party Platforms

1972 Democratic Party Platform

Calls for abolition of the death penalty:

VI. Crime, Law and Justice

The Quality of Justice

Justice is not merely effective law enforcement —though that is an essential part of it. Justice, rather, expresses the moral character of a nation and its commitment to the rule of law, to equality of all people before the law.

The Democratic Party believes that nothing must abridge the faith of the American citizens in their system of law and justice.

We believe that the quality of justice will be enhanced by: …

Abolishing capital punishment, recognized as an ineffective deterrent to crime, unequally applied and cruel and excessive punishment.

1972 Republican Party Platform

No reference to the death penalty or to severity of punishments, but the platform has an extensive section on law enforcement touting the “unrelenting war on crime”:

Law Enforcement

We have solid evidence that our unrelenting war on crime is being won. The American people know that once again the thrust of justice in our society will be to protect the law-abiding citizenry against the criminal, rather than absolve the criminal of the consequences of his own desperate acts….

When our Administration took office, a mood of lawlessness was spreading rapidly, undermining the legal and moral foundations of our society. We moved at once to stop violence in America. We have … [e]ven more fundamentally, … established a renewed climate of respect for law and law enforcement.

1968 Party Platforms

1968 Democratic Party Platform

No reference to the death penalty. Calls for “equal justice under law”:

Justice and Law

We are firm in our commitment that equal justice under law shall be denied to no one. The duty of government at every level is the safety and security of its people. Yet the fact and fear of crime are uppermost in the minds of Americans today. The entire nation is united in its concern over crime, in all forms and wherever it occurs. America must move aggressively to reduce crime and its causes. …

In fighting crime we must not foster injustice. Lawlessness cannot be ended by curtailing the hard-won liberties of all Americans. The right of privacy must be safeguarded. Court procedures must be expedited. Justice delayed is justice denied.

1968 Republican Party Platform

No reference to the death penalty or to severity of punishment, but for the first time the platform has a section devoted to crime. It calls “respect for the law … the cornerstone of a free and well-ordered society” and pledges “an all-out, federal-state-local crusade against crime”:

Crime

Lawlessness is crumbling the foundations of American society.

Republicans believe that respect for the law is the cornerstone of a free and well-ordered society. We pledge vigorous and even-handed administration of justice and enforcement of the law. We must re-establish the principle that men are accountable for what they do, that criminals are responsible for their crimes ….

For the future, we pledge an all-out, federal-state-local crusade against crime ….

1964 Party Platforms

1964 Democratic Party Platform

No reference to the death penalty. Calls for a “democracy of opportunity” and civil rights advances designed “not to punish, but to promote further our commitment to freedom, the pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity”:

Democracy of Opportunity

The variety of our people is the source of our strength and ought not to be a cause of disunity or discord. The rights of all our citizens must be protected and all the laws of our land obeyed if America is to be safe for democracy.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 deserves and requires full observance by every American and fair, effective enforcement if there is any default.

Resting upon a national consensus expressed by the overwhelming support of both parties, this new law impairs the rights of no American; it affirms the rights of all Americans. Its purpose is not to divide, but to end division; not to curtail the opportunities of any, but to increase opportunities for all; not to punish, but to promote further our commitment to freedom, the pursuit of justice, and a deeper respect for human dignity. …

The Criminal Justice Act of 1964, now before the President for signature, will for the first time in history ensure that poor defendants in criminal cases will have competent legal counsel in defending themselves in Federal courts.

1964 Republican Party Platform

No reference to the death penalty or to crime, with occasional references to “interracial tensions” and “lawlessness”:

Discord and Discontent

This Administration has exploited interracial tensions by extravagant campaign promises, without fulfillment, playing on the just aspirations of the minority groups, encouraging disorderly and lawless elements, and ineffectually administering the laws. …

Faith in the Individual

  1. We Republicans … pledge: …

—to open avenues of peaceful progress in solving racial controversies while discouraging lawlessness and violence.

1960 Party Platforms

1960 Democratic Party Platform

No reference to the death penalty and the limited reference to crime focuses on federal efforts relating to organized crime:

Law Enforcement

In recent years, we have been faced with a shocking increase in crimes of all kinds. Organized criminals have even infiltrated into legitimate business enterprises and labor unions.

The Republican Administration, particularly the Attorney General’s office, has failed lamentably to deal with this problem despite the growing power of the underworld. The new Democratic Administration will take vigorous corrective action.

1960 Republican Party Platform

No reference to the death penalty or to crime, and a single paragraph on combatting juvenile delinquency:

Juvenile Delinquency

The Federal Government can and should help state and local communities combat juvenile delinquency by inaugurating a grant program for research, demonstration, and training projects and by placing greater emphasis on strengthening family life in all welfare programs for which it shares responsibility.

 


Pew Resource Center 2015 Poll on Political Affiliation and the Death Penalty

A 2015 national poll by the Pew Resource Center reported declining support for the death penalty in the United States across virtually all demographic groups, with the drop in support especially pronounced among Democrats. Pew Resource Center, Less Support for Death Penalty, Especially Among Democrats (Apr. 16, 2015). Pew reported significant drops in support for the death penalty among all political affiliations between 1995 and 2015 (see the chart to the right), with declines of 31 and 22 percentage points among Democrats and Independents, respectively, and a 10 percentage-point drop in support for the death penalty among Republicans. As of March 2015, 77% of Republicans, 57% of Independents, and 40% of Democrats said they favored the death penalty. 17% of Republicans, 37% of Independents, and 56% of Democrats said they opposed capital punishment.

From November 2011 to March 2015, Pew reported significant declines in support for the death penalty among Democrats and Independents (9 and 7 percentage points, respectively), and a slight decline among Republicans as a whole (2 percentage points). However, support for the death penalty among those who identified themself as conservative Republicans fell 7 percentage points during this period, matching the drop for Independents and for those who identified themselves as conservative/moderate Democrats. Support for the death penalty among liberal Democrats fell by 11 percentage points (to 29%) over this period.

The Pew Poll also asked respondents questions about whether the death penalty was morally justified, the risk of executing innocent persons, whether the death penalty is a deterrent, and racial disparities in the application of the death penalty. Republicans were significantly more likely to say that the death penalty was morally justified (80%), as compared to Democrats (50%) and Independents (64%). 79% of Democrats believed that the death penalty carried a risk of putting an innocent person to death, as contrasted with 71% of Independents and 61% of Republicans. A significant majority of Democrats (71%) and Independents (60%) believed that the death penalty was not a deterrent, a view shared by about half of all Republicans (48%). The biggest divide on death penalty views—a nearly 40 percentage point split—came in the area of race. While 70% of Democrats believed that minorities were more likely to face the death penalty, only half of Independents (52%) and fewer than a third of Republicans (31%) shared that view.

—Robert Dunham, Executive Director, DPIC


The Fair Punishment Project has released an analysis of the political party platforms reported on this webpage. See Fair Punishment Project, THE HISTORY OF THE U.S. DEATH PENALTY AS TOLD THROUGH PARTY PLATFORMS, 1960-PRESENT (July 26, 2016).