Last night, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump won their respective parties’ presidential primary elections in New Hampshire. There’s a lot that can be and has been said about this outcome and what it means for American politics. One interesting thing I’d like to point out is that these candidates are by far the two most protectionist candidates running for either party’s nomination, and they are the only candidates that have made opposition to free trade a part of their campaign’s message.
The conventional wisdom is that good trade policy fares poorly during election season. Foreign trade is an easy scapegoat for complex economic problems, and restricting trade is a simple “solution.” It’s no surprise that the two most populist candidates are also the ones trumpeting an anti-trade message.
At the same time, however, trade is rarely ever an issue that animates voters. Regardless of their preferences on trade policy, other issues almost always take precedence in voters’ minds when they go to the polls. It’s endlessly frustrating to free traders that, even though it doesn’t help politicians get elected, they consistently promote harmful myths about international trade during their campaigns.
I’m not sure that was the case in New Hampshire. During last night’s news coverage, I watched a reporter from one of the cable news networks interview voters. When asked why they supported Donald Trump, one couple said their biggest concern was that jobs were going to Mexico.
I suspect we’ll hear more anti-trade rhetoric from both Trump and Sanders in the coming weeks as they try to differentiate themselves from their competition and cash in on nativist sentiments. We’ll have to wait and see if it drives the other candidates toward more illiberal trade policy positions as well, or if it gives them cover to stake out more moderate positions.