Politics

Public Remains Wary of Federal Government's Power

by Jim Norman

Story Highlights

  • Six in 10 Americans think the federal government has too much power
  • For Obama's second term, number has stayed consistently high
  • Growing concern this term among Democrats, moderates and liberals

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Six in 10 Americans think the government has too much power, marking the third year in a row that at least 59% of the public has voiced this view. The 60% recorded in this survey ties the previous high from 2013 for the question, which Gallup has asked annually since 2002.

fedgovchart1_UPDATED_2

The solid majorities in 2013, 2014 and this year saying the federal government is too powerful differ significantly from the 51% Gallup measured in 2012. That poll was conducted in the days after the Democratic National Convention that helped propel Barack Obama to a re-election win that year.

During President Obama's first year in office in 2009, the percentage of Americans concerned with the power of the federal government was 51%. By his second year in office, 2010, that percentage climbed to 59%, after the federal government passed the Affordable Care Act. The heightened concern about government power was a key factor in Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterm elections. A slight drop to 57% in 2011 was followed by the 2012 drop to 51%.

TooMuchPowerTD Final

Overall, the average percentage who thought the government was too powerful during Obama's first term -- 2009 to 2012 -- was 54%. This term, the average has risen to 60%.

Democrats, Moderates, Liberals Now More Wary of Government Power

A comparison of the combined results of Gallup's polls in Obama's first term and those in his second term reveal that the rise in concerns over the federal government's power is being driven by Democrats, moderates and liberals. Republicans and conservatives have consistently and overwhelmingly believed the government has been too powerful throughout Obama's presidency. But now a majority of moderates (57%), as well as independents (64%), share that view.

fedgovchart2_UPDATED_2

The election of 2014, which saw Republicans gain control of the Senate, had little effect on the views of Democrats, moderates or liberals concerning the power of the federal government. The percentage of moderates believing the government is too powerful has been steady, near 57%, for the past three years, while among liberals, it has maintained a narrow range around 37%.

The largest rise in concern about federal power from Obama's first term to his second has occurred among blacks -- a 20-percentage-point increase from 28% to 48%. In the years prior to the election of Obama as the first black president, blacks generally were more concerned than the general public about the federal government having too much power. Obama's victory in the 2008 election led to a huge drop over the next year in the number of blacks having these concerns. Since Obama's re-election, polls the past three years have all shown a resurgence in blacks' concerns about government power.

Conservatives and Republicans show virtually no change, largely because their numbers were already so high during Obama's first term. There is little variation in the general increase from Obama's first term to his second term by age, education, income or gender.

Bottom Line

With four out of five Republicans voicing concerns about a federal government that is too powerful, several major candidates for the Republican presidential nomination have taken notice:

  • Ben Carson, who has the highest net favorable rating of any GOP candidate in Gallup tracking, said, "We are in the process right now of learning that our government is far too big -- and the bigger it gets, the more taxpayer money it needs to sustain itself."
  • Carly Fiorina, whose net favorable numbers have risen significantly, spoke of "the rights of the individual being crushed by a government that's become too big, too powerful and too corrupt."
  • Sen. Marco Rubio, whose image is second only to Carson among Republicans, recently referred to the "incredible level of mistrust on anything massive that the government does."

It's not just Republicans who agree that the federal government is too powerful. A majority of independents agree with that view. Less than half of Democrats agree that the government has too much power, and echoing this, Democratic candidates tend to focus on using government as the main instrument to fix perceived problems. The Democratic nominee in next year's general election, however, will need to face the fact that the majority of the country is concerned about the existing level of government power. If the Democrats' campaign in 2016 can pull the percentage of moderates holding that view back below 50%, it could prove to be one of the keys to victory for them.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Sept. 9-13, 2015, with a random sample of 1,025 national 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.

In addition, two sets of Gallup's annual Governance surveys -- four from the years 2009, 2010, 2011 and 2012 and three from the years 2013, 2014 and 2015 -- were aggregated to create combined results from the first term and the second term of President Obama.

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 Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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