The Public Speaks—Again
February 21, 2019
In a recent column, I discussed how public opinion on trade was changing. Subsequently, John Murphy of the U.S. Chamber (proving once again that people actually read this column) told me I was out of date, and there was more recent information available. Now, thanks again to Bruce Stokes at the Pew Research Center, I've had a chance to look at more recent data and want to pass some of it on to you. With one exception, it does not materially change my thinking about where the American people are on trade, but some new questions provide additional insights.
First, Americans continue to have opinions about trade, but it continues to not be that important of an issue to them compared to other things.
From this you can see that trade continues to rank far down the list of issues Americans think should be priorities. Interestingly, it also shows that the partisan divide on the importance of trade is less than it is on other issues, just as it is on the related priority of jobs.
Second, the public continues to believe trade agreements are good things—and at record-approaching levels following a dip after the 2016 election. (Support for trade, as opposed to trade agreements, is even higher—74 percent last year.)
Third, the new development is the partial return of Republicans to the pro-trade camp.
When I last wrote about this, the Republican "trade is a good thing" line had only just begun its ascent from its 2016 trough. You can see from the above graph that as of last year, Republicans have begun to return to their historic support for trade, although they still have a way to go to reach their historical peak. Meanwhile, Democratic support for trade remains strong, with those thinking it is a bad thing dropping to a historic low of only 19 percent.
Fourth, while cognitive dissonance on trade remains, it is declining. For a long time, people have been perfectly capable of believing that trade is good at the same time that they believe trade destroys jobs, decreases wages, and does not cut prices. Last year's data, however, suggests that compared to four years earlier, dissonance is declining.
Fifth, it appears that Americans are warming to trade. Every demographic category polled found trade less threatening in 2018 than they did in 2014. Note also that as in previous years, those most supportive of trade were young people and those with a college education.
Finally, while support for trade is relatively non-partisan, support for the president's trade policy is not.
This is not surprising—Republicans are supporting their president whether they agree with him or not. Democrats have done—and will do—the same thing under similar circumstances. That support becomes more difficult, however, as Republican voter opinion slowly moves back in a pro-trade direction. Democrats face a similar disconnect—reconciling the pro-trade views of most of their voters with the support they get from organized labor, even as labor leadership appears increasingly out of touch with its own members as far as support for the president is concerned. This will go on for a while, largely because, as the first chart shows, voters are more interested in other issues and are less likely to punish or reward their politicians for their trade positions.
That may be good news for congressional politicians, but it is not very good news for the president. If Republican voters move back to a more pro-trade position, and if trade remains a marginal issue in the public's priorities, his ability to mobilize Republicans using unfair trade arguments is diminished. It also sends an important signal to the president. His focus on trade has made it a national issue and, in the process, forced more people to think about where they stand on it, which is a good thing. That they are not coming out where he wants them to is good news for pro-trade advocates but a warning sign to the president that there may no longer be as much political gain in his argument as he thinks. Of course, if his real appeal is more about his articulating victimization (by foreigners, by the Washington elite) than about trade, then there is less reason for optimism—but that is another column entirely.
William Reinsch holds the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
© 2019 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.