PRINCETON, NJ -- Americans' trust in each of the three branches of the federal government is at or near the lows in Gallup's trends, dating back to the early 1970s. Americans' trust in the legislative branch fell six percentage points this year to a new low of 28%. Trust in the executive branch dropped eight points, to 43%, and trust in the judicial branch, at 61%, is also the lowest measured to date.
The data are part of Gallup's annual update on trust in government, conducted in the Sept. 4-7 Governance poll. Gallup previously documented that Americans' trust in the federal government to handle both domestic and international problems slid to new lows this year.
Americans have generally had the least trust in the legislative branch, consisting of the House of Representatives and the Senate, but never lower than the 28% who do so now. The prior low was the 31% measured in 2011, shortly after Congress and the president engaged in contentious debt-ceiling negotiations.
Trust in the legislative branch had recovered slightly during the previous two years, to 34%, but is down significantly this year. As recently as 2007, 50% of Americans trusted Congress, but that trust has eroded amid a struggling economy and an era of intense partisan gridlock. This has been particularly acute since Congress was divided between a Republican House and a Democratic Senate after the 2010 elections.
After a sharp drop from last year, trust in the executive branch is the lowest it has been during President Barack Obama's tenure, at 43%. The historical low of 40% was measured in April 1974, months before Richard Nixon resigned amid the Watergate scandal. Trust in the executive branch was also in the low 40s during the last two years of George W. Bush's presidency.
Americans' trust in the executive branch has surpassed 70% on two occasions in Gallup's trend -- in 1972, the year Nixon was re-elected in a landslide, and in 2002 under Bush, shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The high during Obama's presidency so far is 61%, measured during his first year in office.
Trust in the judicial branch has usually been higher on a relative basis than trust in the other branches of the federal government, and remains so. Although essentially the same as last year's 62%, the 61% who trust the judicial branch this year is the lowest to date. Trust in the judicial branch generally exceeded 70% in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and was in the high 60% range for much of the period from 2003-2012.
Republicans and Democrats Differ in Trust in Executive Branch, Similar on Legislative
Republicans (35%) and Democrats (31%) exhibit similarly low trust in the legislative branch, with independents even less trusting at 23%. There has been a relatively narrow Republican-Democratic gap in trust in Congress, averaging six points, since party control of the Senate and the House became divided in 2011.
Prior to that, Democrats showed greater trust in the legislature when the Democratic Party held the majority of both houses from 2007-2010, with an average 24-point higher trust rating than Republicans. Republicans, likewise, exhibited far greater trust in Congress than Democrats when the GOP had control of Congress prior to 2007, with an average 11-point gap from 2004-2006.
After the Republican Party gained control of the House in 2011, Republicans' trust in the legislative branch increased in comparison to what it was under Democratic control of both houses from 2007-2010. But both Republicans' and Democrats' trust in the legislative branch is far lower under the divided Congress than it was when their respective parties held full control of Congress.
Americans' trust in the executive branch seems to be influenced mostly by the party of the president, at least for those with a party preference. Currently, 83% of Democrats and 13% of Republicans say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the executive branch at a time when a Democrat resides in the White House. Independents' trust (37%) is currently closer to the level of Republicans than of Democrats. When Republican Bush was president, a similar partisan division was seen, with the trust levels of the parties reversed.
Trust in the judicial branch currently shows modest partisan variation, with 67% of Democrats and 59% of Republicans saying they trust it. Independents' trust is also 59%. When there have been party differences in trust in the federal judiciary in the past, those who identify with the president's party have typically expressed greater trust.
Americans' trust in the three branches of the federal government is collectively lower than at any point in the last two decades. Although trust in the executive branch was lower during the Watergate era, the erosion of trust at that time was limited to that branch. Today, less than a majority trust the executive and legislative branches, and judicial trust, though still high on a relative basis, is the lowest Gallup has measured.
The frustration with government is also evident in near-historical-low job approval ratings for Congress, below-average job approval ratings for Obama, and Americans' consistently ranking the government itself as one of the most important problems facing the country.
U.S. voters will have a chance to alter the balance of power in Congress in the midterm elections, which could in theory affect their level of trust in the government more generally. However, it is not clear how much the government will change once the elections are over. Republicans are expected to keep majority control of the House, meaning there will be some form of divided government for Obama's last two years, regardless of which party wins control of the Senate.
Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 4-7, 2014, with a random sample of 1,017 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, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level.
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, and cellphone mostly). Demographic weighting targets are based on the most recent Current Population Survey figures for the aged 18 and older U.S. population. Phone status targets are based on the most recent National Health Interview Survey. Population density targets are based on the most recent U.S. 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.