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American Public Opinion on Foreign Trade

Foreign trade has become a significant issue in the presidential campaign. Donald Trump has proposed to renegotiate many aspects of trade with China as a centerpiece of his campaign, and Bernie Sanders continues to focus on rewriting "disastrous" trade pacts that he says cost American jobs.

This focus on the pros and cons of foreign trade is not new. Back in the fall of 1993, many of us remember Texas businessman (and 1992 and 1996 independent presidential candidate) Ross Perot debating Vice President Al Gore on the merits of NAFTA -- an agreement that was passed by Congress and signed into law in late 1993, and that is still controversial to this day.

Gallup has a long-standing trend question on foreign trade, and the most recent results reflect American attitudes toward foreign trade that are positive at this point in history.

What Americans Think Foreign Trade Means for the U.S.

This question was first asked back in 1992, then again in 1994, and then on a continuing basis beginning in 2000. But, as is always the case with survey questions asking about complex issues, wording matters.

The Gallup question juxtaposes two approaches to trade and asks the respondent to choose between them. The first option talks about U.S. exports and the "opportunity for economic growth" they provide. The second option talks about imports and the "threat to the economy" they provide. So the question sets up the two sides of trade -- goods going out and goods coming in -- and casts the former as a good thing for the country and the latter as a bad thing.

The responses to this question have varied significantly over the years, which generally shows the question is a sensitive measure. The "imports as a threat" percentage has been as low as 33% and as high as 52%, a range of 19 percentage points. The "exports as an opportunity" percentage has varied from a low of 41% to a high of 58%, a range of 17 points.

Over the life span of asking this question, the imports/negative viewpoint prevailed in 1992 (during a bad economy) and even before (and during) the recession of the mid-2000s. The opportunity/positive viewpoint was on top in 1994 and in the early 2000s, and has soared back on top in the past several years. We've had four consecutive years now in which the majority of U.S. adults have come down on the positive side of the foreign trade equation as measured by this question.

But other questions measure Americans' attitudes in different ways. A set of questions on trade was released recently by Bloomberg with the headline: "Free-Trade Opposition Unites Political Parties in Bloomberg Poll."

The wording of the central question about trade in that poll was:

"Turning now to trade, generally speaking, do you think U.S. trade policy should have more restrictions on imported foreign goods to protect American jobs, or have fewer restrictions to enable American consumers to have the most choices and the lowest prices?"

The results showed 65% agreeing with the first option, 22% agreeing with the second and the rest not sure.

Several observations about this question:

  • The question focused just on "imported foreign goods" and didn't mention or deal with exports, the other half of the foreign trade equation. Free trade agreements work both ways, and removing restrictions on imports is usually coupled with removing restrictions on exports. This question focuses on the bad -- or more negative -- side, and in isolation, it might not be surprising that the public is more likely to agree with the "more restrictions" option.

  • The question includes the highly potent concept of "jobs." If there is one thing I've learned about public opinion and the economy, it is that Americans react positively to the idea of creating more jobs. It's the No. 1 thing Americans talk about when we ask them how to improve the economy, and a number of proposals made by the presidential candidates that include the idea of creating more jobs test extremely well. Thus, when this question includes the option to "protect American jobs," it is not surprising that it receives a majority response.

We can imagine a parallel question focusing on exports -- something like:

"Do you think U.S. trade policy should have fewer restrictions on exporting American goods to foreign countries in order to create American jobs, or have more restrictions on exporting American goods in order to enable American consumers to have the most choices and lowest prices?"

The working hypothesis would be that the first option would have the larger response.

I often say that no survey question is a bad question because we learn something about American public opinion from the responses to almost anything we put in front of them -- no matter how we word it. The challenge is to be cognizant of the effects of specific wording stimuli when we analyze and report the results.

The two questions I've reviewed here tell us that when given options discussing the possible advantages of exporting versus the possible disadvantages of importing, the exporting positives win with the American public. But when given just a statement about the negatives of importing, the public will agree with a proposal for more import restrictions.

Gallup


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