Trump’s Lasting Mark on Americans’ Views of Trade

Trade is now a top-tier concern for many U.S. voters, a new series of polls finds.

Photo by Andrey Sharpilo on Unsplash

U.S. presidents rarely put international trade at the heart of their economic agendas, preferring instead to focus on domestic priorities. President Donald Trump, however, was unique in making trade a defining issue of his presidency. Trump’s trade war with China was a focal point of his administration, as was the renegotiation of NAFTA as the USMCA. Trump’s often aggressive stance on trade also often served as a proxy for his broader populist messaging on the economy.

One result is that trade is now a top-tier concern for many voters, according to three polls I helped draft through TradeVistas (a nonprofit trade education site sponsored by the Hinrich Foundation) and the research firm Lincoln Park Strategies. Our surveys found that like Trump, many voters see trade first and foremost through the prism of how the United States should benefit. Americans overwhelmingly support policies like “Buy American,” for example, but are lukewarm in their enthusiasm for global institutions like the WTO. These sentiments could have significant implications for how President Biden advances his own trade agenda over the next four years.

Here’s what our surveys, conducted in July, September and post-election November 2020, revealed:

In our post-election survey of 1009 American adults, nearly half identified trade as a top issue for them. While 22 percent of respondents said trade was “the most important issue to me” in determining their 2020 vote, 27 percent said it was “one of the most important issues” to them. Of the rest, 32 percent said while trade was important, it didn’t affect their vote, and 20 percent said they were not sure or that it’s “not an issue I really care about.”

Republicans were more likely to see trade as a top concern, with 61 percent saying it was the most important or one of the most important issues to their vote (versus 45 percent of Democrats.

The Trump-era policy that won the most bipartisan support in our surveys was “Buy American, ” which beat out other trade policy priorities such as imposing new tariffs or negotiating new trade deals.

In its narrowest sense, “Buy American” refers to federal procurement policies requiring the purchase of U.S.-made goods and services where possible, but our polls found that Americans support the idea of buying American more broadly, even if it means paying more for it personally. The strength of this support shows the depth of economic patriotism among Americans and indicates how Americans would like to see trade-related policies serve domestic priorities and jobs.

Our surveys found that three out of four Americans (75 percent) support Buy American policies requiring the federal government to buy from domestic suppliers whenever possible.* Nearly half — 48 percent — say they “strongly support” the policy, while just 5 percent of Americans say they are either “somewhat” or “strongly” opposed, while 21 percent were “indifferent.”

One reason for this strong support is the belief that Buy American will boost the economy. While some experts argue that Buy American policies are counterproductive, nearly 4 in 5 respondents (79 percent) — and Republicans in particular — told us that Buy American procurement policies would create jobs, including 41 percent who say it would create “a large number of jobs.”

As for their own shopping, twenty-five percent of respondents in our survey said they would choose an American-made good over a comparable foreign product “regardless of cost,” while 31 percent say they would pay a 10 to 20 percent premium. Another 25 percent said they would buy the U.S. product if it were the same price as a comparable item, while 9 percent said they would purchase the cheaper product, and 10 percent were unsure. These results are consistent with other surveys finding negative consumer sentiment toward products made in China. A 2020 survey by FTI Consulting, for instance, found that 40 percent of Americans say they won’t buy Chinese-made goods.

Significantly, our post-election survey found that many voters would like to see the focus on Buy American to continue (President Biden has, in fact, put forward an aggressive Buy American agenda of his own.) We found that 33 percent of respondents said policies like Buy American are “extremely important” to pursue over the next four years, compared to 26 percent who believed it extremely important to negotiate new trade agreements with other countries; 24 percent who said the same of increasing the export of U.S. goods and services; and just 20 percent who said imposing new tariffs on foreign goods was “extremely important.”

In contrast to their strong support for domestically-oriented policies like Buy American, respondents in our surveys were much less interested in propping up international institutions to govern trade, such as the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Our poll found that just 36 percent of Americans believed it would “definitely hurt” or “probably hurt” the United States’ global economic standing to leave the WTO, while about 36 percent of respondents said they favored the idea of dropping membership. A plurality of respondents, however, were unsure or indifferent about the United States’ participation in the WTO, which likely reflects both low levels of knowledge of the WTO’s role and its relatively low profile in recent years.

What this means for the next four years is that the politics of U.S. trade policy will likely remain inwardly-focused. As President Biden takes on the monumental task of rebuilding a post-pandemic economy, his embrace of policies like Buy American will prove popular as a way to boost domestic production and justify broad investments in infrastructure.

The Biden Administration may, however, have a tougher time persuading Americans to take a more internationalist approach to trade policy, particularly when it comes to participating in global institutions like the WTO. Making this case will be no less urgent given the dominant role that China is setting up for itself in the post-pandemic economy and America’s absence from multilateral trade agreements like the CPTPP, a massive trade deal involving 11 countries in the Asia-Pacific and the Americas.

The challenge for the new administration will be to show how America’s role in setting the rules for global trade will benefit Americans at home.

This article was based on pieces originally published in Tradevistas here, here and here.

Note: While our survey sought to measure Americans’ perspectives on “Buy American” as a matter of federal policy, we realize that Americans are likely to interpret “Buy American” more broadly, to include personal spending decisions as well as those by the government. Politicians have also added to the confusion by using the phrase “Buy American” to show support for domestic manufacturing and production generally.

Methodology: Lincoln Park Strategies conducted three surveys: (1) 1000 interviews among adults age 18+ were conducted from July 10–13, 2020 by Lincoln Park Strategies using an online survey; (2) 1003 interviews among adults age 18+ were conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies from September 10–12, 2020 using an online survey; and (3) 1009 interviews among adults age 18+ were from November 9–10, 2020 using an online survey. The results were weighted to ensure proportional responses. The Bayesian confidence interval for 1,000 interviews is 3.5, which is roughly equivalent to a margin of error of ±3.1 at the 95% confidence level.

I write about politics, economics, poverty and opportunity. Author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, from the New Press.