Free Trade

Trade War Cost Republicans In 2018 Midterms, Especially in Rural Swing Counties

New research shows that GOP candidates lost ground in counties that were adversely affected by the trade war. In places without those effects, there were "no discernable gains" for Republicans.


Rick Telesz is a farmer from northwestern Pennsylvania who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after supporting Barack Obama four years earlier. But Telesz says Trump won't get his vote again in 2020—unless the trade war comes to an end.

"My breaking point with the current president came when I realized his trade war had caused 20 percent losses for the 750-acre family farm I help run in western Pennsylvania," Telesz wrote in an op-ed that USA Today published last week. Telesz' farm produces soybeans, corn, and dairy products, all of which have been negatively affected by the retaliatory tariffs imposed by China in response to President Donald Trump's widespread tariffs targeting Chinese-made goods.

And while a real backlash against Trump's trade policies might not happen until 2020, new research shows that the Republican Party has already paid a smaller electoral price for Trump's trade war. During the 2018 midterm elections—and particularly in rural "swing" counties that could be key to Trump's re-election hopes—researchers from Dartmouth College and the Peterson Institute for International Economics found "a modest but robust negative relationship between local employment exposure to the 2018 trade war and support for Republican House candidates."

By comparing county-level election results against county-level economic data showing industries harmed by the trade war, researchers Emily J. Blanchard, Chad P. Bown, and Davin Chor argue in a new paper that "Republican candidates lost ground in counties that were adversely affected" by the trade war. In counties where workers were disproportionately protected by new U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum, there was "no discernible gains" for Republican politicians.

The 2018 midterms were not good for Republicans, as the party lost 40 House seats and its majority in the chamber. Blanchard, Bown, and Chor argue that about 10 percent of the overall decline in vote share for House GOP candidates between 2016 and 2018 was due to the consequences of the trade war, and the effect was most concentrated, they say, in swing counties where Trump narrowly lost the popular vote in 2016.

"Negative association was driven largely by retaliatory tariffs on agricultural products, particularly in political swing counties where Trump narrowly lost the popular vote in 2016," they write.

Meanwhile, Trump's ballyhooed farm bailouts—payments to farmers that the president has promised would make up for the damage caused by the trade war—didn't do much to help, politically.

"The 2018 agricultural subsidies offset some of the Republican loss in vote share, although this was likely immaterial to the swing in House seats," the Dartmouth and PIIE researchers note.

There could, of course, be other factors at play here—and one election is a small sample size. Still, it probably shouldn't come as a surprise that voters most victimized by a certain government policy would tend to withhold their support from the party that imposed that policy. And it might say something about Trump's clout in rural America that the 2018 backlash against the trade war wasn't worse.

With another year of economic pain since then—and maybe another year of the same to come before the 2020 election—farmers might be looking for better alternatives. They may not find them.

As I've written before, Democrats seem willing to waste a political opportunity that's been handed to them by Trump's trade war. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) has outlined a trade policy that looks a lot like Trump's. She effectively rules out signing trade deals with developing nations until they adopt American standards for labor laws, environmental rules, and more. She sees tariffs as "an important tool" in achieving those goals.

Few Democrats have been willing to challenge that point of view, and the ones who have done so have mostly failed to gain much attention for it. Former vice president Joe Biden—who championed the Trans-Pacific Partnership during the Obama administration, and who supported the North American Free Trade Agreement when it passed Congress in 1994—has significantly toned down his support for free trade. So far, not a single Democrat in the 2020 primary field has committed to repealing Trump's tariffs on Chinese-made goods, which would be the most sure-fire way to end the trade war and boost farm exports again.

But even if Democrats don't seize the opportunity presented to them, Republicans may still be in trouble. In his op-ed for USA Today, Telesz said he was fed up with Trump's empty promises of trade deals that never seem to materialize.

In January, the president spoke to the American Farm Bureau's annual convention and promised "trade deals that are going to get you so much business, you're not even going to believe it. Your problem will be: 'What do we do? We need more acreage immediately. We got to plant.'"

More recently, Trump said his "phase one" deal with China would result in more exports of agricultural products. On October 11, as he announced that deal from the Oval Office, Trump had a specific message for American farmers. "I'd suggest the farmers have to go and immediately buy more land and get bigger tractors."

More than a month later, details of that deal have still not been released. There is increasing skepticism that it will come together at all.

"Farmers aren't as easily fooled as the president thinks," Telesz wrote. "More and more farmers see his trade promises for what they are: hot air into the cold wind."

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    1. If you thought the 2018 #BlueWave was enormous, wait until you see 2020’s.

    2. Excessive intervention in the market and implementation of trade protection policies. Attempts to carry out a cost-free economic aggression through the status of the US economic hegemon, without the bottom line of economic protection, the final result may run counter to the idea, because no country is a fool. Trump is miscalculated.

  2. Paper by free trade lobby finds tariffs have a small negative effect. Shocking stuff.

  3. the Missouri River overflowing is a trade war pic?

    1. Reason was looking for an atomic bomb drop on Hiroshima pic but could not find one.

    2. I thought it was a farm covered in snow. Is the resolution on my screen that bad?

      1. maybe. no snow on the barns or trees though

        1. Yes there is. The one’s you’re talking about are silhouetted and/or are windward/leeward.

          1. you see the backside of the barns?

            1. you see the backside of the barns?

              Without blowing the pic up, I see 3 distinct roofs, 2 are covered in snow. The windward or leeward side of the barn needn’t be the backside. Drive through farmland and you’ll see roofs right next to each other that are off parallel by only a couple degrees and one will be free of snow, blown off by the wind, and one will be covered because the snow settled on the leeward side. Moreover, when the sun comes out and makes you nearly snowblind, both roofs will appear black from a distance.

              1. Yup that is snow.

                1. Nope it’s the Atlantic ocean washing over the heartland because of climate change.

                  1. Or it could be mars in a few decades once Elon Musk gets it all figured out.

      2. His comment screamed “I’ve never seen so much open ground below 30,000 ft.” to me.

      3. Looks more like windblown snow than water to me.

        1. fair enough … a farm under snow is a trade war pic?

          1. Better point is that the pic captured both rural democratic voters in this particular “swing” county.

            1. funny because it’s true

        2. Looks more like windblown snow than water to me.

          Also, the dress is/was clearly black-and-blue, the word is “Yanny”, and Chicago-style with a knife and fork.

          1. Schroedingers dress ?

    3. It’s sort of like using a Kentucky gun range event to stand in for war in Syria.

      1. I think they were just going for a pic of empty farmland. If they showed you one full of crops it would indicate prosperity.

  4. Well it’s always good when Republicans lose elections.

    However from a Koch / Reason libertarian perspective, the most noteworthy result of Drumpf’s economic policies has been the stagnation of Charles Koch’s net worth in the $58,000,000,000 to $62,000,000,000 range.



    The world’s largest trade deal could be signed in 2020 — and the US isn’t in it

    The world will bypass the USA to attain free (or at least more-free) trade… Trump had a protectionist hissy fit, took his baseball bat, and went home. The damage will last a LONG time.

    Selfish hissy fits will bite you in the ass, sooner or later. Always!
    Thanks for NOTHING, Trumpistas!

    1. That’s pussy globalist talk. And we don’t take kindly to globalists and their free trade ’round here.


      Anyone who understands trade agreements enough to analyze this kind of thing would have to have the technical expertise only found in (((deep state))) operatives.

      1. Nothing says “I hate Trump.” more than cheerleading hyuuge trade deals guaranteed to be full of win.

        Technically, pretty much every G20 meeting is bigger and more inclusive than this trade deal was but, you know, no Myanmar.

        1. Dislike huge trade deals all you want, boycotting them will not help us stay on top of the heap. Places where there is more development opportunity, like much of Asia, are places where we want to continue to be engaged with dollars. Having trade barriers between our companies and those markets, barriers that the Chinese will not have, will be disadvantageous.

    2. I do enjoy the claim that the largest, most heavily managed trade deal as being one of free trade.

      1. Please explain that to the families of farmer suicides brought on by Trump’s utterly stupid and selfish trade wars! “Welfare for farmers” in the wake of losses caused by the trade wars, does NOT cut it! Welfare is socialist micro-management; free trade is honest, non-coercive dealing! TPP and successors are heavily managed, you think? What do you call Trump’s trade wars then? Less tariffs is less micro-management! Trump has CLEARLY (as seen by ALL honest and sane people) increased, not decreased, tariffs!
        ‘I’m gonna lose everything’
        A farm family struggles to recover after rising debt pushes a husband to suicide

  6. “and the effect was most concentrated, they say, in swing counties where Trump narrowly lost the popular vote in 2016.”

    In other words highly democrat areas anyway where people would easily accept democrat arguments

    1. preceding phrase :
      about 10 percent of the overall decline in vote share for House GOP candidates between 2016 and 2018 was due to the consequences of the trade war,

      They’re not even claiming 10% of lost seats was due to tariffs, just 10% of overall vote. LOL at writing an article about this.

      1. Boehm and his hack peers are just so desperate.

        Notice Boehm cannot explain how the GOP gained seats in the US Senate during Election 2018. That must be because of Russian meddling.

        1. Boehm does laughable articles when the DOW Jones drops but never when it goes up to new historical levels.

          1. The stock markets are the inflation indicators proving tariffs are taxes…. or something.

            1. And JesseAz’ complete and total blindness and dishonesty proves that tariffs are NOT taxes! Black is white, white is black, and Trump is our Blessed Savior!

  7. Makes sense.

    Some people can afford to play the long game, whether it’s right or wrong. Most people who lose manufacturing jobs due to the long game do not have that luxury.

  8. They may still hold their nose and vote Trump over a socialist.

  9. rural “swing” counties

    We’re talking, what, 1,000 total voters? 10,000? You start with ‘flyover country’ and effectively extract the parts that don’t technically constitute flyover country.

  10. Shouldn’t the popular Trump tax cuts have more than offset this damage to a relatively small number of voters?

    1. Vox bragged about how the gaslighted America about those. And Boehm doesnt acknowledge they happened.

  11. Hahaha Boehm.

    You’re such a hack.

    I am sure that Boehm won’t do any articles giving Trump credit when Trump gets reelected and the GOP gains seats in the US Senate and the House during Election 2020.

  12. “Swing counties”

    Lot more going on in the rural areas than most city folks know.

    Now looks like there may be no deal ver0.1 with China. We will know more tomorrow when the president wakes up in a different mood.

    But Iran and N Korea are going to cave any day now. I just know it.

    1. Why would NK and China cave.

      The Propagandists in the MSM and at reason are giving the commies hope.

  13. Rick Telesz is a farmer from northwestern Pennsylvania who voted for Donald Trump in 2016 after supporting Barack Obama four years earlier.

    This is how we know this article is fake.

  14. By the by, politicians belonging to the party of the guy sitting in the white house in swing areas usually don’t do well in midterm elections… as a matter of course.

    Areas which teeter on the edge of swinging to the opposing parties often become mobilized while a president sits in office. We’ve seen this again and again. When GWB was in office, Republicans in swing areas that vocally criticized Bush were knocked out of office, whereas Republicans in solidly red areas kept their seats. Essentially: The moderates were the ones tossed, the unapologetic ones in safe areas kept their seats.

    I remember a story on NPR where a bunch of Never-Bush GOP reps were whining that they were kicked out of office in the mid-terms merely because they were “associated” with Bush– even though they were part of the #Resistance.

  15. This reaction is exactly why we cannot have nice things. Electoral politics being what they are, nobody can take bold moves in the right directions – fiscal responsibility, limiting government authority, cutting spending, etc.

    Taking a completely agnostic position on the specifics of trade wars in general and this president in the specific, this is a prefect example of the kind of political and diplomatic initiative that short term electoral politics makes nigh impossible.

    These trade wars have an objective in mind – freer and fairer trade with foreign countries (very broadly defined). Regardless of whether the results are desired or the methods the most favored, this track is definitely a multi-year strategy that must inflict some pain in order to convince all parties to agree to changes.

    So next time you whine about politicians having no long-term planning capability, remember this incident and how you felt about that problem.

  16. Saw a report today that the trade wars are hurting the Kentucky Bourbon industry.

    Kentucky Bourbon.

    You trade war fans can all go to hell. That stuff is a blessing from heaven and I don’t give a damn about all that economic theory crap y’all keep going on about.

    1. Hurting as in less is being exported…..

      Which means….

      More for us!

    2. Echo….Thinking about making some Mint Juleps in advance of sunset today, to enjoy Friday night. Bourbon is good.

      I remember the fire that took out 5% of the world bourbon supply. That was a sad day in my household. I mourned that loss more than the loss of a congressman; it mattered much more! 🙂

    3. Hahaha. You mean the Bourbon industry that prevents any other alcohol from being called “Bourbon”?

      All those trade restrictions pre-Trump and not a peep from Echospinner

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