Polling Free Trade

A New York Times/CBS News poll from 2013 asks, “Which is more important to you – to protect American industries and jobs by limiting imports from other countries, or to allow free trade so you can buy good products at low prices no matter what country they come from?” I like this question because it addresses protectionism as a policy rather than trade agreements.

When the options were protectionism or free trade, the result was 51% in favor of limiting imports and 41% supporting free trade.  Now that isn’t a majority of American favoring free trade, but it strikes me as an incredibly high number considering how broadly the question is worded.  It didn’t ask if we should lower tariffs; it asked if we should have any at all?  Do 41% of Americans really oppose all tariffs?

That’s worth keeping in mind as the public becomes more involved in the debate over trade promotion authority and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.  We’re going to be hearing more from the news media about Americans’ attitudes toward trade and globalization, and it’s important to remember that polls about trade vary greatly depending on how the question is worded. 

A 2013 Gallup poll focusing on general attitudes toward trade asked respondents, “Do you see foreign trade more as an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports or a threat to the economy from foreign imports?”  The problem with this question is that it assumes that trade is supposed to meet some mercantilist goal of exports exceeding imports and asks whether that goal is being met.  Unfortunately, this is how most supporters of the TPP have framed their arguments.  Still, the poll found support for trade at 57% with 35% opposed.

A new Pew Research Center poll shows that most Americans think trade agreements have been good for the United States, but when asked whether those agreements have been good for them personally, the results are more mixed:

Majorities across income categories say free trade agreements have been a positive thing for the U.S., but there are much wider income differences in opinions about the personal impact of free trade agreements.

Overall, somewhat more say their family’s finances have been helped (43%) than hurt (36%) by free trade agreements. Among those with family incomes of $100,000 or more, far more feel they have been helped (52%) than hurt (29%) financially. But among those in the lowest income group (less than $30,000), 38% say their finances have benefited from free trade agreements, while 44% say they have been hurt.

My colleague Simon Lester has noted that these results might be different if people were more informed about the regressive costs of protectionism.

Trade opponents have been quick to point out that polls about past agreements don’t actually ask if people support the TPP.  They also point to other polls that show strong public opposition when the question links trade agreements to specific hot-button issues like currency manipulation or outsourcing. 

Shawn Donnan of the Financial Times has noted how the Pew poll demonstrates a disconnect between the American public and their elected representatives.

What is remarkable is the consistency with which polls have pointed to support for trade and trade agreements in some important demographics.

Polls have shown a majority of Democratic voters support trade agreements even as most of the party’s representatives in both houses of Congress do not. The same is true for Republicans, voters under 30 and Hispanics, last week’s Pew poll found.

In fact the Pew survey found that a majority in all income groups thought trade agreements had been a “good thing” for the US economy even if they took contrasting views on what the impact had been on their own family finances.

Largely because of the political discourse in Washington, the US often looks from the outside like a parochial nation in retreat from the world, particularly when it is put up against a resurgent China. But from the ground, the US seems more comfortably interconnected with the world than it has in decades.

Just as polls show Americans are more comfortable with gay marriage than they once were they also reflect the fact that Americans are more accepting of globalisation than they have been in the past.

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