Why Have Americans Become More Positive About Trade?

by Erik Voeten on March 5, 2013 · 3 comments

in International Relations,Public opinion

A recent Gallup Poll has found that Americans have become remarkably more positive about foreign trade. Below is the key graph:

This is a pretty major shift that could bode well for President Obama’s announced plans for a new transatlantic trade deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. So why such a big shift? Dan Drezner suggests that this reflects public enthusiasm for trade exports, which itself may be a spillover from greater consumer confidence.

This may well be part of it but there is also a partisan story to be told here. Back in 2009, 43% of Democrats and 45% of Republicans saw trade as an opportunity for growth rather than a threat to the economy. In 2013. this is 66% of Democrats and 51% of Republicans.  In other words, most of the change has come from Democrats following President Obama’s prominent endorsement of new trade deals in the State of the Union address. The consequence is that  Democrats are now 15 points more favorable towards free trade than Republicans in this poll.

Another fascinating difference with 2009 lies in the income breakdowns. In 2009, 52% of those making more than $75,000 were positive about trade versus only 35% of those making less than 35%.  In 2013, these numbers were 57% and 54% respectively. This could be because most low income people are Democrats who are following their President and/or due to changes in the economy where fewer low income people worry about their jobs leaving for China (they are already gone) and more see new exports as a possibility for new/better jobs.

The patterns are pretty similar if you look at liberal/conservative rather than party identification and education rather than income. Liberals (63%) are now more positive about trade than conservatives (56%). In 2009 54% of those with a high school education or less saw trade as a threat. In 2013 this is only 41%, with 49% viewing trade as an opportunity for growth. The question to ask is thus why so many Americans who identify as Democrats (and liberals) and so many Americans with low incomes and/or little education have become more positive about trade?

{ 3 comments }

Vladimir March 5, 2013 at 11:24 am

How has media coverage changed? My perception is that there has been an increase in the “reshoring” of manufacturing jobs type of coverage. The White House as recently as the state of the union address tried to stress that this was a trend (correctly or not). It would be interesting to track the net change in manufacturing jobs and correlate it to the polling data. Even better if geographic data was available, say , Michigan vs. North Carolina

Erik M. March 5, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Following Vladimir’s point about comparing Michigan and North Carolina, I wonder if 1) the declining importance of labor unions in the Democratic coalition and 2) the continuing importance of nativists in the Republican coalition could explain the changing poll data.

John Tarter March 7, 2013 at 2:47 pm

I think the reason for this is split between the long decline of labor unions and the recent rise of economists in the Democratic party. Probably the most influential Democratic columnist right now is Paul Krugman, and many other econ bloggers and professors have become major standard-bearers for the party, almost all of whom support free trade.

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