Report: Republicans see fewer opportunities from foreign trade than Democrats

The American Enterprise Institute has released a new report on the "Polls and Politics of Trade."  Some sharp partisan differences on trade have emerged in recent years.

Until 2008, Republicans were the strongest believers within the political spectrum as to the benefits of foreign trade being more an opportunity for economic growth via increased U.S. exports versus being an economic threat by way of foreign imports.  Democrats and independents were far more skeptical of foreign trade.


But starting in 2009, the patterns have reversed.  Republican support for foreign trade has remained about constant at 50 percent, while support from Democrats and independents has surged to more than 60 percent.

Polling over the past year suggests that the public is about evenly split on whether “free trade agreements between the United States and foreign countries have helped the United States [or] have hurt the United States.”  Given the massive trade deficits the U.S. is running – $722 billion in 2014, and already $186 billion during the first three months of 2015 – the malaise and uncertainty are understandable.

Only 18 percent of recent polling respondents stated that growing trade and business ties between the United States and other countries is a “very good thing.”

In response to the question about whether they believe that globalization, especially the increasing connections of the U.S. economy with others around the world, is mostly good or mostly bad, 62 percent of Republicans answered “mostly good,” lower than Democrats (75 percent) and about equal to independents (59 percent).

Once we move from general questions about trade and globalization into specific issues, then we see more clearly the broad concerns the public has.  Only 43 percent think “the fact that the American economy has become increasingly global is good because it has opened up new markets for American products and resulted in more jobs,” whereas 48 percent believe that it is “bad because it has subjected American companies and employees to unfair competition and cheap labor.”

Just 6 percent of respondents to a poll strongly agreed, and only 20 percent agreed, with the statement that “[o]ur country’s goal in trade policy should be to eliminate all barriers to trade and employment so that we have a truly global economy.”

Respondents were about evenly split on whether “NAFTA [the North American Free Trade Agreement] has had more of a positive impact on the nation’s economy [or] more of a negative impact.”  Clear majorities think NAFTA has been bad for the job security of American workers and bad for creating jobs in the U.S.

Less than half of Republicans believe that the Trans-Pacific Partnership will be a good thing for the U.S.

When asked to rank a suite of priorities for the president and Congress in the upcoming year, “dealing with global trade issues” came dead last out of 24 options (“dealing with climate change” was second-last).  Other similar polls also place trade issues at the bottom of the priority list, while “protecting the jobs of American workers” was ranked the second-highest priority, just behind (more probably in a statistical tie with) “taking measures to protect the U.S. from terrorist attacks.”

Despite how hard the corporate lobby tries to sell the religion of foreign (especially free) trade, the public is overall not buying the rosy messaging. Who can blame them?

Over the past half-century, there is a statistically significant negative relationship between trade as a proportion of the U.S. economy and real per capita GDP growth.