Gov. Gavin Newsom is expected on Wednesday to issue a moratorium on the death penalty in California, granting reprieves to the hundreds of people on death row. By signing his executive order, Newsom will lower the country’s death row population by a quarter.
The move isn’t particularly surprising considering the Democrat’s record as an elected official — he was an early proponent of same-sex marriage as mayor of San Francisco — and considering California’s politics. Nor should it be surprising that President Trump weighed in Wednesday morning to oppose Newsom’s move.
“Defying voters, the Governor of California will halt all death penalty executions of 737 stone cold killers,” Trump said. “Friends and families of the always forgotten VICTIMS are not thrilled, and neither am I!”
The death penalty is not a new entrant to the political culture wars, but in recent years, the partisan split on the issue has widened. A Pew Research Center poll completed last year found that a small majority of Americans support the death penalty but that those views were split by party. More than three-quarters of Republicans support executions while only about a third of Democrats agree.
Among the groups most supportive of the issue are white evangelical Protestants; more than 7 in 10 support the use of the death penalty.
But that’s nationally, not in California. In California, voters in 2012 rejected a proposition that would have ended the death penalty — though only by a four-point margin. That may be the voter defiance to which Trump refers. At the same time, a poll from PPIC found that most Californians preferred life imprisonment to the use of the death penalty.
That was also a year in which the Republican candidate for president garnered 37 percent of the vote — as opposed to the 31 percent Trump received four years later. It was a year in which Republicans won 16 House seats, as opposed to the seven seats Trump’s party won in the state in November. In other words, the politics seem to have changed.
Trump is more likely signaling his defense of the death penalty to the country broadly than trying specifically to undercut Newsom. (Who, it’s worth mentioning, is the ex-husband of Donald Trump Jr.'s girlfriend, Kimberly Guilfoyle.) California hasn’t had an execution since 2006, when it executed Clarence Allen.
Executions have increasingly been the domain of red states, thanks largely to Texas’s dominance in capital punishment. Since 2014, there have been 134 executions in the United States, according to the Death Penalty Information Center. Three were in Virginia, the only state that didn’t support Trump in 2016 where executions have occurred since then. The rest were in red states. Since about 2000, an increasing percentage of executions have occurred in states that backed Trump.
In 2014, support for the death penalty among Democrats dropped under 50 percent in Pew’s polling, the first year in which that happened.
It’s not new that there’s a partisan divide on the death penalty. But it is relatively new that executions are almost solely the domain of more conservative states. As with so many other issues — climate change, abortion, taxes — there is a wide gulf on how states approach capital punishment.
Newsom’s plan and Trump’s response both reflect that split.