PRINCETON, NJ -- At a time when the U.S. is dealing with the federal debt limit, the budget, the rollout of the healthcare law, and the situation in Syria, trust in all three branches of the federal government remains on the lower end of what Gallup has measured historically. Americans' trust in the executive and judicial branches of the federal government are both down five percentage points in 2013, to 51% and 62%, respectively. Trust in the legislative branch is the lowest of the three, at 34%, and is unchanged from 2012.
Earlier in September, Gallup reported sharp declines in Americans' trust in the government to handle domestic and international problems. The Sept. 5-8 poll was conducted in the midst of debates about whether the U.S. should take military action against Syria.
To some degree, the 2013 decline in trust reflects the dissipation of a surge in trust observed in 2012 after the Democratic National Convention, which helped propel President Barack Obama to re-election.
Trust in the executive branch remains above the 47% figure measured in 2011, as well as the historical low of 40% found in 1974, during the height of the Watergate investigation.
Trust in the judicial branch, though still high compared with the other branches, is now the lowest Gallup has measured by one point.
And trust in the legislative branch, at 34%, is three points above the historical low of 31% from 2011, but remains bleak. Americans' trust in the legislative branch has shown a steep drop in recent years, down 28 points from 62% in 2005.
This year, for the first time, Gallup measured trust in the agencies and departments of the federal government. Fifty-two percent of Americans say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in these, which matches the 51% trusting the executive branch, of which they are a part, and exceeding the level of trust in elected members of Congress.
Trust in State and Local Governments Also Down
The 71% of Americans who express a great deal or fair amount of trust in local government and the 62% trusting in state government both show slight three-point dips from 2012. Americans are more trusting in local government than in all three branches of the federal government, and trust in state government exceeds trust in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. Americans have historically been more trusting in state and local governments than in the executive and legislative branches, but not the judicial branch.
Trust in local government has largely been stable over the years, ranging from a low of 63% in 1972 to a high of 77% in 1998, averaging 70%.
Americans' trust in state government has shown more variation, falling as low as 51% in 2009 as states dealt with budget crises during the economic recession and reaching as high as 80% in 1998 during the economic boom. The current 62% level of trust is just below the historical average of 64%.
Republicans More Trusting in State, Local Governments
Americans' trust in federal government branches and state and local governments is responsive to external events, including which party occupies the White House. As such, there is currently a wide gulf in Democrats' (86%) and Republicans' (19%) trust in the executive branch of the federal government. Democrats currently express more trust in the judicial branch, while the parties are more similar in their generally low level of trust in the legislative branch.
A majority of both Republicans and Democrats say they trust their state and local governments, but Republicans express more trust in each.
The large party differences in terms of trust in the presidency are typical. In the last 10 years, supporters of the president's political party have had an average 69-point advantage in trust over supporters of the opposition party.
In recent years, trust in the judicial branch has generally been higher among supporters of the president's party -- Democrats have been more trusting in the judiciary since 2009, while Republicans were more trusting during George W. Bush's tenure.
Party differences in trust in the legislative branch have typically been related to which party holds a majority in Congress. Republicans were more trusting through 2006, but after Democrats won a majority in Congress in the 2006 elections Democrats were more likely to trust Congress. Since 2011, when party control of Congress became divided, Republicans have expressed slightly more trust in the legislative branch.
Republicans, historically, have had slightly more trust in state (averaging five points higher) and local government (four points higher) than Democrats. Republicans' trust in state government has been higher since 2011, by an average of 11 points, perhaps because of the large number of Republican governors elected in 2010.
Americans' trust in the federal government branches is down after increasing slightly in 2012, and remains below average historically, particularly for the legislative branch. Their trust in state and local governments is more in line with historical norms.
Trust in the executive and legislative branches of the federal government may be most closely tied to Americans' perceptions of how things are going in the country and how well the government is addressing the problems it has to face. Americans' trust in the federal government's ability to handle domestic and international problems are both at historical lows. If the federal government is unable to pass a federal budget to avoid a government shutdown, or reach an agreement to raise the federal debt limit in the coming weeks, trust is likely to continue to erode further. By the same token, if the government can successfully address those issues in a reasonable timeframe without a great deal of partisan rancor, Americans may regain some level of trust in the government.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 5-8, 2013, with a random sample of 1,510 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.
For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.
Interviews are conducted with respondents on landline telephones and cellular phones, with interviews conducted in Spanish for respondents who are primarily Spanish-speaking. Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 50% cellphone respondents and 50% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods. Landline respondents are chosen at random within each household on the basis of which member had the most recent birthday.
Samples are weighted to correct for unequal selection probability, nonresponse, and double coverage of landline and cell users in the two sampling frames. They are also weighted to match the national demographics of gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region, population density, and phone status (cellphone only/landline only/both, cellphone mostly, and having an unlisted landline number). Demographic weighting targets are based on the March 2012 Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the July-December 2011 National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the 2010 census. All reported margins of sampling error include the computed design effects for weighting.
In addition to sampling error, question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error or bias into the findings of public opinion polls.
For more details on Gallup's polling methodology, visit www.gallup.com.