Americans head to the polls today with their country in the midst of a growing trade war with China, yet trade itself continues to be a relatively minor issue for the electorate.
Indeed, despite some political narratives suggesting that President Donald Trump's Rust Belt-driven 2016 victory was due to a rejection of globalization, Americans remain overwhelmingly in support of free trade and generally recognize that protectionist tactics like tariffs do damage to the economy. Although Trump has spent three years—one on the campaign trail and two in office—pushing a protectionist agenda that includes tariffs and threats to tear-up or force renegotiation of trade deals, polling seems to indicate that his agenda is not being driven by voters.
In fact, it's quite the opposite, argues Scott Lincicome, an international trade attorney and senior policy adviser at Republicans Fighting Tariffs.
"Protectionist policies emanating from the United States government today are most likely a response not to a groundswell of popular support for protectionism but instead to discrete interest group lobbying (e.g., the U.S. steel industry) or influential segments of the U.S. voting population (e.g., steelworkers in Pennsylvania)," Lincicome writes in a new paper about public sentiment towards trade policy. "Protectionism therefore remains a classic public-choice example of how concentrated benefits and diffuse costs can push self-interested politicians into adopting polices that are actually opposed by most of the electorate."
A May 2018 survey from the Pew Research Center shows that 56 percent of Americans believe trade agreements are a positive thing for the country, compared with only 30 percent who hold a negative view of trade deals. Both numbers are in line with historical norms.
One of the most interesting trends identified by Lincicome is a divergence among Republicans, where pollsters have found that support for free trade and tariffs are both increasing. It doesn't seem to bear out the narrative that anti-trade sentiment has taken over the GOP, but rather that Republicans lack a clear direction on trade and are united as a party by other issues instead (such as immigration).
Trump's often confused messaging on tariffs reflects this two-sided reality. On several occasions, the president has argued that the tariffs are a gateway to freer trade. There's little evidence so far that he's right about that—and, indeed, the rewrite of the North American Free Trade Agreement produced a slightly more restrictive set of trade policies. And, bizarrely, Trump has also claimed that his tariffs don't exist at all.
Polling also shows that opinions about trade and protectionism are closely linked to partisan views. In other words, Republicans are more likely to support protectionism when they have a president who supports protectionism. Once again, it is not the desires of voters that are causing this shift to happen.
In this muddled environment, it appears that special interests that favor more protectionism have been the driving force behind the Trump administration's belligerent trade policies—or, at least, they have amplified what Trump already believed.
"These polling realities puncture the current conventional wisdom on trade and public opinion," says Linciome, who is also an adjunct scholar at the libertarian Cato Institute. "In particular," they puncture the notion "that Americans have turned en masse against trade and globalization, and that President Donald Trump's economic nationalism reflects the bottom-up policy demands of a silent majority of American voters."