Issues Facing State, Local Governments Affect Public Trust

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

State politics have dominated the news lately. Last week, Californians recalled their state's governor less than one year after he had been re-elected to a second term. This was the manifestation of an extremely low level of trust in Gov. Gray Davis, but also a lack of confidence in state government more generally.

A recent Gallup Poll on trust in state and local government reveals several interesting phenomena. Trust in state government has declined significantly in the last two years, not only in California, but in the nation more generally. During the same period, trust in local government has held steady.

Americans' willingness to express trust in their own state's government is related to the match between their own partisanship and the party holding the governorship. Republicans are more likely to say they trust their state government when a Republican presides over the state, while Democrats are more likely to do so when a Democratic governor is in office.

Also, the amount of trust Americans place in their local government depends in part on where they live -- in urban, rural, or suburban areas. For the first time in Gallup's data, trust varies by place of residence, with those in urban areas expressing a lower level of trust than those in suburban or rural areas.

Trust in State Government

The 2003 Gallup Governance poll*, conducted in September, found 53% of Americans saying they have either "a great deal" (12%) or "a fair amount" (41%) of "trust in the government of their state when it comes to handling state problems." This is down significantly from 2001, just prior to Sept. 11, at which time 65% had at least a fair amount of trust in their state government. Prior to that, trust had been at the 80% level around the time President Bill Clinton was impeached in December 1998. The current level of trust in state government is the lowest Gallup has measured since 1972.

One reason for the decline is likely the recent political storm in California. That state accounts for slightly more than 10% of the population of the United States, and consequently about that percentage of each Gallup Poll sample. Trust in state government among Californians was exceedingly low in this poll, with just about one in eight having a great deal or fair amount of trust in state government. However, trust in state government still shows a significant decline from 2001 to 57% among the residents of all states other than California.

Generally speaking, the widespread decline in trust probably owes a great deal to the budget difficulties most states are currently enduring. A slow economy for the last few years has led to decreased state revenue, while at the same time demands for state services (such as unemployment compensation) have increased. Most states are required to have balanced budgets so they are unable to borrow against future revenues, as does the federal government. Additionally, federal legislation often requires states to implement new policies or standards without providing any federal funds to help with that implementation.

Partisanship Influences Trust

On the national level, Americans' attitudes toward government and the general course of the nation are heavily influenced by their partisanship, with conditions in the country rated more positively by Democrats when a Democrat is in the White House and more positively by Republicans when a Republican is in the White House. For example, Gallup data show that trust in the presidency is greatly affected by one's partisanship, and in 2003, Republicans were much more likely to express trust in the executive branch of the federal government than Democrats were. An in-depth look at the trust in state government data reveals a similar phenomenon.

Overall, Republicans (including independents who lean Republican) and Democrats (including independents who lean Democratic) exhibit similar levels of trust in state government, 55% and 53%, respectively. Similarly, there is little difference in trust between respondents residing in states where there are Democratic (51%) and Republican (55%) governors (the Democrat figure is depressed somewhat by Californians' responses).

However, Americans differ in the amount of trust they put in state government depending on the match between their own partisanship and the party that currently holds the governorship in their state. At the time the poll was conducted (prior to the California recall), there were roughly equal numbers of Republican (26) and Democratic (24) governors in the United States. A special Gallup analysis shows that in states in which a Democrat is governor, 58% of the citizens of those states who personally identify as Democrats have a great deal or fair amount of trust in state government, compared with 44% of Republicans (both percentages are significantly depressed by Californians' ratings; taking California residents out leaves trust in Democratic-led states at 66% among Democrats and 55% among Republicans).

Conversely, Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to say they trust their state's government if they live in a state with a Republican governor (69% for Republicans and 46% for Democrats).

Trust in Local Government

In contrast to what is observed with state government, trust in local government has not changed since 2001. Prior to the current reading, the trend line on trust in local government has closely followed that for state government. Thus, the divergence found in the most recent poll is notable.

The data also show some interesting variation in trust in local government. While more than 7 in 10 Americans living in suburban (71%) or rural (73%) locations have a great deal or fair amount of trust in their local governments, only 58% living in urban areas do. [NOTE: These differences are not due to the situation in California. When California's numbers are removed from the sample, the results are virtually the same.]

These results represent a change from prior years. For example, in 2001, roughly 7 in 10 Americans in urban (71%), suburban (66%), and rural locations (70%) had at least a fair amount of trust in their government. In 1998 and 1997, there was also little difference in trust in local government by area of residence.

This may result from budget problems plaguing large cities, many of which offer extensive social services to local residents. Additionally, budget woes of larger cities are more likely to draw media attention than those in smaller communities.

Bottom Line

The recent update on trust in local and state government reveal some interesting differences. It is not clear, however, if trust in subnational government experienced a similar spike to what was observed in trust in national government following Sept. 11. Clearly, partisan forces that influence how one views national government operate below the federal level, and many Americans appear to be cognizant of the difficulties being faced by their state and local governments.

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,025 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 8-10, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 480 Republicans and independents who lean to the Republican Party, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 470 Democrats and independents who lean to the Democratic Party, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 448 Americans living in states where a Republican is governor, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 575 Americans living in states where a Democrat is governor, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 256 Americans living in urban areas, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 536 Americans living in suburban areas, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±5 percentage points.

For results based on the sample of 233 Americans living in rural areas, the maximum margin of sampling error is ±7 percentage points.

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