The complicated relationship between partisanship and trust in state versus federal government

Tufts Public Opinion Lab
4 min readNov 16, 2023

By Cameron Cokinos, Jaime Givens, Ananya Gita, and Anna O’Sullivan

Given the current landscape of partisan polarization in the U.S, it seems that people are more likely to favor a government when they share a political party. Additionally, Gallup polls measuring Americans’ trust in institutions, show that most Americans still retain trust in state governments, and at similar levels to what Gallup has measured dating back to its polls in the 1970s. Americans may see their state government as more responsive to and capable of responding to their concerns, as compared to the federal government which continues to suffer from gridlock in a politically polarized country. It is thus interesting and compelling to consider trust in state governments and some factors which affect trust levels. One such factor is party identity and state party affiliation, leading to the question: How does sharing a political party with your state’s dominant party affect how much you trust the state government vs. the federal government?

Data and Methodology

We investigated the relationship between congruence of political parties and trust in state vs. federal government using the Cooperative Election Study (CES) 2022 dataset, which surveyed 60,000 American adults before and after the 2022 elections. We are interested in whether each respondent was congruent or incongruent with the partisanship of the state that they live in. For example, a Democrat in a blue state is congruent, while a Democrat in a red state is incongruent. We used survey questions about respondents’ level of trust in the federal government and their state’s government. WiseVoter helped us determine the dominant party of each state, which was based on the 2020 presidential election. We calculated the respondent’s relative trust score by subtracting their trust in the federal government (on a scale from 0 to 100 with higher values indicating more trust) from their trust in their state government (on a 0–100 scale). A positive value on this scale would mean that the respondent has greater overall trust in the state government than the federal government, while a negative value would mean that the respondent has a greater level of trust in the federal government.

We used our recoded variables to run multiple regression analyses — one of all states and another excluding swing states. Since we got the same result when excluding swing states, only the graph for all states is included below. Multiple regression analysis is a tool that allows for analyzing the relationship between one dependent variable, i.e. respondent’s overall trust in government, and several independent variables, i.e. congruence of a respondent’s political party relative to their state’s dominant party. Because the congruence depends on whether the state is red or blue, we also tested for interaction effects between congruence and state color in our model. Interaction effects are when the effect of one variable affects another. This helped us discover that the effect of congruence is different for people living in red states opposed to blue states.

Results

Our findings were statistically significant, revealing that a Democrat living in a red state, an example of an incongruent respondent, had a 34 point negative trust score. A negative trust score means that a respondent has a greater level of trust in the federal government over the state government. So Democrats in red states had about 34 percent less trust in their state governments than in the federal government. However, respondents living in blue states reported being more trusting of their state government than the federal government, regardless of their partisanship. The effect of partisanship was more potent for respondents living in red states, with a huge gap in relative trust between Republicans and Democrats living in red states.

Looking at the data another way, being congruent with the state’s government seems more important to Republicans than Democrats. For example, Republicans see a bigger decline in relative trust when they are not congruent. But even in blue states, Republicans still trust their state government more than the federal government.

Conclusions and Future Study

Irrespective of congruence, blue states tend to have a stable level of trust that is slightly skewed toward trust in state government. Additionally, a Democrat in a red state is associated with less trust in state and more trust in the federal government. Republicans in blue states have levels of trust that are most neutral on our scale of trust in federal and state government. Considering that their political party is not dominant in their state, nor in power in the white house, we feel this result is consistent with other tendencies we have observed. Specifically, the data suggests respondents tend to have more trust in the level of government that aligns with their personal party affiliation. Accordingly, congruence has a greater impact on trust in red states: a Republican in a red state tends to trust their state government more than a Democrat in a blue state. Republicans in red states have the highest level of trust in their state government over federal. Lastly, congruence is associated with an increase in trust in state government over federal, holding all other variables constant. Future studies may consider the effect of congruence on civic engagement. Additionally, they may compare levels of trust in specific parts of state and federal government, such as trust in law enforcement or social welfare programs. Future research could also examine how changes in political alignment or dominant parties over time, particularly after contentious state or federal elections, impact trust in government.

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Tufts Public Opinion Lab

The Tufts Public Opinion Lab (TPOL) is dedicated to studying contemporary controversies in American public opinion using quantitative data analysis.