Voters Express Confidence in Government in New GW Poll

Survey results of the poll reflect overall stability with attitudes from last year, showing confidence in America’s future, along with concerns that the country is currently on the wrong track.

Presidential Pollsters results 2021
GW's Society of Presidential Pollsters released results of the group's latest survey last week. (William Atkins/GW Today)
September 16, 2021

By Greg Varner

Close to three in four American voters have confidence in the federal government and in the future of the country, even though many think things are currently on the wrong track, according to a new survey by the Society of Presidential Pollsters at the George Washington University.

Results of the poll were shared on Wednesday by the Graduate School of Political Management in its annual Society of Presidential Pollsters Endowed Lecture.

Famed pollster Mark Penn, chair and CEO of the firm Stagwell Inc., presented results from a survey of 1,803 registered voters, conducted online over two days earlier this month. “People like the American system of government, even if it doesn’t always work as well as they’d like to see it work,” Mr. Penn said. “And that hasn’t changed.”

Christopher Arterton, professor emeritus of political management and founding dean of the GW Graduate School of Political Management, led the discussion, with questions submitted by audience members. Dr. Arterton expressed surprise that the levels of satisfaction with government remained basically the same as they were in September 2020, allowing for some predictable partisan shifts.

For example, African American and Hispanic confidence in the future is up this year, but across all racial groups, the total level of confidence remains about where it was last year.

“You can have a factory that has problems and still believe that it’s the best factory out there,” Mr. Penn said, after likening the American government to a factory under new management since the presidential election last November.

Poll respondents were weighted for age and other factors such as gender, region, ethnicity and political ideology to align them with their actual proportions in the population.

They were asked about their satisfaction with various governmental institutions, such as the military, the U.S. Supreme Court and the Department of Justice. The military and the Supreme Court enjoy high levels of confidence. Confidence in the presidency and in Congress is lower.

A sample of the questions included in the poll was, Do you think the bipartisan system of governing has broken down or is working well? A majority, 73% of total respondents, say it has broken down. (Last year, 83% said so.)

Bipartisanship is highly preferred across the political spectrum; the total numbers stayed relatively close to the same from last year. Accounting for partisan shift, the percentage of Democrats who wanted their party to enact its programs without bipartisan support has grown by 10 points.

Despite concerns about the lack of bipartisanship, most respondents value the checks and balances built into our government, with roughly half saying there need to be even more checks and balances.

“As annoying as the system may be, gridlock is a feature; it’s not a bug,” Mr. Penn said. “A certain amount of gridlock is really planned in the system.”

Bipartisanship is the preference across the age spectrum, as well, though less desired among younger voters. In fact, vociferous national debate over policy is a good thing, Mr. Penn said, citing the disagreements surrounding the Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare. Over time, he pointed out, support for Obamacare has increased.

“You have to be concerned when programs are passed without such debate,” Mr. Penn said.

Though voters are generally confident that the military and the Supreme Court are working well, poll results show that they are less confident in the FBI, the State Department and the Department of Justice. Asked whether they think various institutions are working or not working, 42% of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with the performance of the Justice department.

“The Justice department has gone through some tough years here in terms of its reputation,” Mr. Penn said. “That’s not a great number.” Similar percentages of respondents expressed confidence in the FBI, the State department, and the CDC.

Voters were evenly split on the question of whether the number of seats on the Supreme Court should be increased. The number of respondents who support term limits for justices has increased, up to 46%, or nearly half of those responding.

The George Washington University established the Society of Presidential Pollsters in 2010. The Society aims to collect and preserve records of the polling conducted on behalf of the White House over the past eight decades. 

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