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

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’ 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%).