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Majority in U.S. Prefer State Over Federal Government Power

Majority in U.S. Prefer State Over Federal Government Power

Chart: data points are described in article

Story Highlights

  • Fifty-five percent favor concentration of power at state level
  • Thirty-seven percent favor power at federal government level
  • Republicans more than four times as likely to favor state power

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A majority of Americans (55%) favor the theory of government that concentrates power in state governments, outnumbering the 37% who favor power concentrated in the federal government. The latest update of this question -- asked only twice before, in 1936 and 1981 -- is from a June 14-23 Gallup poll. It comes as nearly half of the states sue the federal government over its directive to grant transgender students the right to use bathrooms and locker rooms that correspond with their gender identity. Schools that don't comply could risk losing federal funding.

Americans' Preferences for Concentration of Government Power, State vs. Federal
Which theory of government do you favor: concentration of power in the state government or concentration of power in the federal government?
  State government Federal government No opinion
  % % %
Jun 14-23, 2016 55 37 8
Sep 18-21, 1981 56 28 16
Jan 20-25, 1936 44 56 --

Americans' preference for state power was similar in 1981 -- the first year of the presidency of Ronald Reagan, who declared his support for states' rights on the prior year's campaign trail. In contrast, Americans slightly preferred federal power in the mid-1930s, after President Franklin D. Roosevelt unveiled a sweeping series of programs that increased the role of the federal government in Americans' lives.

The current lawsuit over transgender bathrooms, which is being brought predominantly by GOP-controlled states, is one of many battles states have fought against President Barack Obama's administration. Obama was unsuccessful this year in defending his executive order on allowing undocumented immigrants to stay in the U.S. but won the fight to uphold the Affordable Care Act he signed into law in his first term.

Views on this question are far from politically homogeneous. The majority of Democrats (62%) support concentrating power at the federal level, while majorities of independents (56%) and Republicans (78%) favor concentrating power at the state level.

Democrats' preference for federal power reflects their party's underlying ideology and is likely related to having a Democrat in the White House. Meanwhile, about two in three state governors in the U.S. are from the GOP, and Republicans are more than four times as likely to prefer concentration of power at the state versus the federal level.

Reflecting these partisan differences, a majority of Americans who approve of the job Obama is doing say they favor concentration of power in the federal government (53%), while 38% favor the states having it. By contrast, those who disapprove of Obama's job performance are more than three times as likely to favor concentration of power in the states (74%) as in the federal government (20%).

Americans' Preferences for Concentration of Government Power, by Demographic Group
Which theory of government do you favor: concentration of power in the state government or concentration of power in the federal government?
  State government Federal government
  % %
Democrats 32 62
Independents 56 33
Republicans 78 17
Approve of Obama's job performance 38 53
Disapprove of Obama's job performance 74 20
June 14-23, 2016

Bottom Line

Americans' preferences for how power is distributed in the U.S. have differed over the past century, and could change again as the politics of the country continue to shift. A reading on these attitudes at the start of a Republican's presidency some 35 years ago found the public leaning toward states' rights, but a reading 80 years ago during a Democratic presidency revealed a slight preference for federal power.

If presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton loses this year's presidential election, Democrats could find themselves more amenable to concentration of power in state governments. Likewise, Republicans could become more open to federal power if a Republican again occupies the White House. Still, states' rights have long been a rallying cry of the GOP, and that seems unlikely to change as a result of the coming presidential election.

Regardless of public opinion, the U.S. Constitution outlines strong federal powers, while giving all unenumerated powers to the states. The Supreme Court may choose to review any disputes between the two.

Historical data are available in Gallup Analytics.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted June 14-23, 2016, on the Gallup U.S. Daily survey, with a random sample of 1,025 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. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 60% cellphone respondents and 40% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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