Trump's Wrong on Trade Policy & Maybe Trade Politics, Too

The Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell recently detailed the economic carnage that would result from Donald Trump’s reckless approach to trade — including likely recessions, millions of lost jobs, and higher prices for American consumers.

As we’ve detailed, protectionism is bad economics. But, apparently, it’s been good politics for Trump as well as Bernie Sanders, both of whom used trade-bashing populism to energize angry voters during primary elections, where extreme partisans often play an outsized role. And Trump promises to double down on opposition to trade as he pivots toward November. 

As America moves from interminable primaries to the general election, however, Trump — and Hillary Clinton — will face a different political calculus on trade. A new Progressive Policy Institute poll shows that Democratic voters in key battleground states have a broadly positive view on trade — and a more positive one than do Republicans. Crucially, so do the swing voters, who will ultimately determine whether these states go red or blue in November.

Swing voters and voters in battleground states played a decisive role in reelecting Barack Obama in 2012 — and in sending a large Republican majority to Congress in 2014. As detailed in our new poll, conducted by veteran Democratic pollster Peter Brodnitz, these voters also have decidedly different attitudes about trade and America’s role in the global economy.

Our survey of voter attitudes in the battleground states of Colorado, Florida, Nevada, and Ohio found that most voters believe that improving the economy should be America’s key priority. While few are angry, most rate the economy as only “fair” or “poor.” Swing voters, in particular, tend to be more worried about the economy than Democrats and are especially focused on pragmatic solutions to promote economic growth and competitiveness.

On trade and global competitiveness, specifically, our survey underscores three critical findings.

1. Battleground voters don’t buy the protectionist claim that America can prosper by walling itself off from the global economy.

Instead, these voters want America to step up its global game. 75 percent (including 73 percent of swing voters and 82 percent of Democrats) believe that to have a strong economy, America must “rely heavily on trade with other countries.” Additionally, almost all battleground voters — 90 percent — believe it’s important to create an environment that enables American companies to compete against foreign businesses, and a strong majority believe that workers can and should benefit from company success.

2. Swing state voters understand that American companies and workers face strong competition in a complex global economy — and that there are no simple solutions.

Voters are concerned, for example, about the threat of U.S. manufacturing jobs moving overseas. Two-thirds of battleground voters (and 72 percent of Democrats) believe this threat comes primarily from greater competition from foreign industries and workers, rather than from the “bad trade agreements” that trade opponents like Trump and Sanders often cite.

Similarly, when asked to choose among policies to keep jobs in America, 67 percent of battleground voters chose either lowering corporate tax rates or educating more highly skilled workers; only 19 percent believed that ending trade agreements was the solution. And, more generally, over 85 percent of battleground voters believe that higher levels of education and training and increased investment in infrastructure are keys to advancing the U.S. economy.

3. Battleground voters believe that high-standard trade deals help the American economy and support good jobs.

Three-quarters of swing state voters believe that trade agreements are “important” in boosting the greater reliance on trade that they see as vital for a strong U.S. economy. When asked to evaluate trade agreements with strong labor and environmental standards, 55 percent of swing state voters said they believe these agreements can help the economy and create good paying jobs; only 32 percent felt that the costs of high-standard deals outweigh the benefits. Notably, Democrats were especially supportive — by a margin of 66 to 25 percent.

Our poll’s findings suggest that to prevail with swing voters and in swing states, Democrats, in particular, will need to craft messages and support policies that transcend protectionism — that recognize trade’s role in supporting American prosperity, acknowledge the complexity of global competition, and highlight the benefits of high-standard trade agreements.

If done right, this can be both smart politics and sound policy.

Most economists agree that trade’s broadly shared benefits far exceed its negative effects. American middle class families, for example, gain over a quarter of their purchasing power and millions of good jobs from open trade.

But it’s also true that trade’s harmful effects — while more limited — also tend to be concentrated in certain regions and sectors. And, as detailed in a new study by M.I.T. economist David Autor, this concentrated harm also helps to fuel political polarization — and the discontent that drives popular support for protectionists like Trump.

To address this legitimate frustration and build a stronger economy for all, it’s critical that the nation do more to help alienated Americans left behind by the global economy. This will require stronger backing for real, broadly supported solutions — such as enhancing job training and improving infrastructure — that can help assure that trade’s undeniable benefits are more widely shared.

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