Wednesday, April 12, 2017

US Polling on Attitudes Toward Trade

Here's the overall pattern from Gallup based on February 2017 polling:

Graph 1

And here's the breakdown by political affiliation:

Graph 2

Poll results are always open to interpretation, and this is obviously no exception. For example, it's possible that anti-Trump forces are rallying to the defense of trade because it seems to them imperiled under the Trump administration. It's also possible that pro-Trump forces are rallying to the defense of trade because they believe that the Trump administration will be cutting much more advantageous trade deals, so that unlike in the past, trade can now help the US economy.

There's also a an NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll about attitudes toward trade, which asks respondents whether they believe that free trade helps or hurts the country. Here's a figure from the NBC reporting on the poll:

How does one interpret this? The NBC story notes the swing since 2010:
"Looking back to 2010, many Democrats didn't sound unlike their Republican counterparts on the subject of free trade. An NBC News/ Wall Street Journal poll taken that year showed that just 21 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats thought that free trade helped the country. Fifty-two percent of Republicans and 43 percent of Democrats considered it harmful.  Fast-forward to 2017, and a whopping 57 percent of Democrats say they root for free trade policies, while just 16 percent say that they are harmful. Meanwhile, Republicans, after a burst of comparatively pro-trade sentiment in 2014 and 2015, are back to their 2010 levels." 
Overall, as the Wall Street Journal article on this poll notes, "The poll this month showed the highest portion of Americans who said free trade helped more than hurt since the Journal/NBC News pollsters started asking that question in 1999." In that sense, the findings from the Gallup and NBC/WSJ surveys are congruent with each other, despite the different wording. 

But these survey results may also suggest that US opinions about trade are just not very deeply rooted, and are more expressions of transient emotions and political partisanship. After all, for anyone who was watching either Democrats or Republicans during the presidential primaries, it's not obvious that there was a large supply of latent support for trade. The Wall Street Journal report on the NBC/WSJ survey included this comment: "Essentially what this says is how partisan the world is," said Peter Hart, a Democratic pollster who worked on the survey. "If Trump says the world is flat, the Democrats are going to say it's round."

Finally, it's worth a reminder that the US public attitude toward trade are considerably less positive than those in many other countries around the world. For example, here's a table from the IMF, World Bank, and World Trade Organization report, "Making Trade an Engine of Growth for All: The Case for Trade and for Policies to Facilitate Adjustment"  (March 2017), which I discussed in yesterday's post. The share of Americans who think trade is good is lower than in most advanced economies, and most emerging market and developing economies, too. This international pattern has always struck me as little odd, given that trade represents a relatively small share of the US economy--given the huge size of the US domestic market--and a relatively larger share of GDP for most of these other countries.