LEWISBURG, Pa. — A recent Bucknell Institute for Public Policy (BIPP) national survey reveals that despite improving attitudes toward free trade nationally, citizens in the six states that Donald Trump flipped from Barack Obama in the 2016 election (Fla., Pa., Ohio, Wis., Mich. and Iowa) remain more skeptical of trade than other areas of the country. Residents of these six key “Trump Coalition” states are less likely to see positive effects of trade on the economy and wages than states that were won by both Trump and Mitt Romney, or by Obama and Hillary Clinton.
The nationally representative survey, conducted by YouGov for Bucknell from March 26-April 1, found that Americans in general are skeptical of trade’s impact on U.S. workers and wages, but this skepticism is significantly stronger in Trump/Obama states.
“Our data suggests that while tariffs and trade wars are politically contentious nationally, they are still likely to be popular in the states that are important to Trump,” said Chris Ellis, a political science professor and director of the Bucknell Survey Research Laboratory. “Given the key importance of these states to the battle for control of the House, Trump’s actions may still pay political dividends in the places that matter most.”
The survey also showcased sharp differences across partisan lines in what the United States should be focusing on when negotiating trade agreements with other countries. Republicans were more likely to say that considering the interest of American consumers and the working class was “very important” to the kinds of agreements that the U.S. should enter. Democrats, by contrast, were more likely to be concerned about wages, human rights and environmental standards of partner countries.
Americans ambivalent on the net impact of trade
In general, American citizens believe that free trade agreements have positive impacts on the prices that they pay for everyday consumer products. The country is more skeptical, though, about trade’s impact on economic growth, employment and wages. Roughly half (51 percent) of Americans say that trade has a positive impact on the affordability of everyday products, while 26 percent say that it has a negative impact.
Opinions of the effect of trade on other aspects of the economy, though, are more negative. Just 29 percent of Americans said trade has a positive impact on economic growth, with 52 percent saying that it has a negative impact. Opinions of trade’s impact on employment and wages were more sour, with just 22 percent saying that trade has a positive impact on employment prospects in their communities while 52 percent said that it had a negative impact. Fewer than one-in-five Americans (19 percent) said that trade agreements have had a positive impact on people like them, while 48 percent said that trade had a negative impact.
Trump/Obama states more likely to say trade has negative consequences
The belief that trade impacts Americans negatively was particularly strong in states won by Trump and Obama in the last two presidential elections. Roughly six-in-ten residents of these states said that trade had a negative impact on economic growth (61 percent); employment prospects (61 percent) and wages (59 percent).
Those numbers were much higher than in states won by both Obama and Clinton and Romney and Trump. Forty-eight percent of residents in Obama/Clinton states thought that trade impacted economic growth negatively, while 48 percent said the same about employment prospects and 41 percent the same about wages. The percentages were similar in Romney/Trump states at 52, 49 and 49 respectively. Across the board, the survey showed lower levels of optimism about the benefits of free trade in these states.
Republicans and Democrats differ in what trade agreements should accomplish
While there is broad agreement that U.S. Presidents should negotiate trade agreements with the best interest of the American economy in mind, there are important differences across political lines in how strongly the U.S. should prioritize its own economic interests against other concerns when negotiating trade agreements.
“We see that when thinking about what trade policy should look like, Republicans tend to be deeply focused on the impact of trade agreements on U.S. workers, consumers and economic growth,” Ellis said. “Democrats care about these things to some extent too, but also take a more internationalist view of what trade pacts should accomplish. Democrats tend to care more about things like the conditions for workers in partner nations, or the impact that trade agreements will have on the environment.”
Both Democrats and Republicans thought the overall benefit to the U.S. economy was the most important factor in setting trade policy: 69 percent saying that this should be a “very important” factor in negotiating trade agreements. But many more Republicans (82 percent) considered that goal to be very important than either Democrats (65 percent) or Independents (69 percent).
Republicans were also more likely to prioritize the interests of American consumers and workers, with 73 percent responding that the effects on working class Americans should be a “very important” priority when setting trade policy, compared to 61 percent of Democrats and 62 percent of Independents. Seventy-one percent of Republicans thought impacts on American consumers were an important priority, compared with 60 percent of Democrats and 61 percent of Independents.
Democrats, on the other hand, were more likely to care about things like the human rights records of trade partners. Fifty-seven percent of Democrats said that this was a “very important” priority, compared to 44 percent of Independents and 35 percent of Republicans. Democrats were also more concerned about the environmental standards of partner nations, with 54 percent responding that this was “very important” to take into consideration, compared to 40 percent of Independents and 31 percent of Republicans.
Additional data and methodological information can be found here.