August 28, 2020 1:42PM

Can Democratic Voters Push Democratic Politicians Towards Trade Liberalization?

Over the past couple months, we at Cato’s Trade Policy Center have been exploring what a Biden administration might do on trade. Back in June, we published a Free Trade Bulletin entitled “Trade Policy under a Biden Administration: An Overview of the Issues and Some Practical Suggestions,” which concluded with some suggestions for trade liberalizing initiatives and systemic changes to U.S. trade laws that a Biden administration might consider. Then a few weeks ago, Cato adjunct fellow (and former Democratic Congressman) Jim Bacchus wrote a Policy Analysis outlining a pro‐​trade policy for the Democratic party.

We can see how people might think we are barking up the wrong tree here. Haven’t the Democrats traditionally been the party of protectionism? President Trump is now embracing protectionism as well, but that doesn’t mean the Democrats will turn away from it. And the Biden campaign has been using a lot of the usual protectionist rhetoric (“Make Buy American Real”).

That’s all true, but to some extent at least, politicians need to take into account what the voters think, and it has been very interesting to watch developments in what voters in general think about trade, and also in what Democratic voters in particular think about trade. Recent polling shows that all voters have become more pro‐​trade in the past several years, but Democrats have moved in this direction a bit faster:

(This data was compiled from multiple documents, and some of it was sent to us directly by the polling people so we don’t have a link, but you can see some of the most recent polling data on trade issues here, here, and here).

We don’t mean to overstate the importance of polling on this issue. As with so many other things, some of this may be a reaction to Trump and it’s not clear what everything would look like in a post‐​Trump world. A Biden presidency would clarify that. Also, people might be more pro‐​trade these days, but not feel strongly enough about it for politicians to take into account their views. Nevertheless, all else equal, it should mean something that the voters have a particular policy preference.

So what are the chances that Democratic politicians will move in the same direction as their voters, if the voters’ currently expressed preferences continue? We’ll see. That is an internal battle that still has to be fought within the Democratic party leadership. But at the least, it makes such a transition more plausible. A policy shift that would have been very surprising 10 years ago seems like more of a possibility now. Politicians may be slow to catch up sometimes, but there are moments when they do and suddenly public policy moves in a new direction.