How Do Americans Really Feel about Trade?

As it turns out, it’s pretty difficult to tell! Much, apparently, depends on how the question is phrased.

Today, the Washington Post reports findings from the latest Pew Global Attitude Project report, which was released yesterday. The Pew study finds that 59% of Americans have a positive view of trade, while 36% have a negative view. The results differ to some extent by demographic characteristics like age, income, and political party affiliation. Pew found that 64% of Republicans believe “the impact of trade on our country is good.”

That figure differs vastly from the result of the WSJ/NBC poll (about which I wrote yesterday), which found that 59% of Republicans believe that foreign trade has been bad. What explains these nearly diametrically opposite conclusions? A very significant factor appears to be the question phraseology.

In the WSJ/NBC poll, the respondent was asked to identify the statement that came closer to his/her point of view.

Statement A: “Foreign trade has been good for the U.S. economy, because demand for U.S. products abroad has resulted in economic growth and jobs for Americans here at home and provided more choices for consumers.” (32% of Republicans agree)

Statement B: “Foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy, because imports from abroad have reduced U.S. demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products.” (59% of Republicans agree)

In the Pew poll, the respondent was asked the following question:

What do you think about the growing trade and business ties between the
United States and other countries — do you think it is a very good thing, somewhat good, somewhat bad or a very bad thing for our country?

Pew tallied the “very good” and “somewhat good” responses and found they represented 59% of total respondents, and 64% of Republican respondents.

What does this all mean? It means that respondents provide answers to questions as asked, and that it is the data interpreters who give too much meaning to the responses elicited by their questions. Neither the Pew question nor the WSJ/NBC question probes peoples’ comprehensive views about trade (and it is evident to me, as I wrote yesterday, that the phrasing of the WSJ/NBC questions biased the results). Nevertheless, the written summary of the results of each poll would have the reader believe that each poll is dispositive of the issue.

That the question phraseology appears to be a determinant of the answer suggests that a better way to discern Americans’ views about trade would be to ask a multitude of questions — including redundant questions phrased differently.

Two figures that appear to be credible from the Pew report are a bit disconcerting. The same question asked of Americans was also asked of citizens in 46 other countries. Positive views of trade were lowest in the United States. And the 59% holding positive views constitutes a huge drop off from 2002, when the same question from Pew found 78% of Americans holding positive views on trade.

Thus, while it appears that Americans are souring on trade, it is hard to tell how many Americans are how sour.