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Tracking Public Opinion on Trump, Tariffs, and Trade

President Trump recently announced a series of tariffs, with a 25 percent levy on steel imports and 10 percent on aluminum. The announcement has elicited cries of anguish from leaders of both the Democratic and the Republican parties, yet voters remain divided on the issue. In a recently conducted Politico/Morning Consult poll, nearly 40 percent of surveyed voters supported the tariffs and 35 percent opposed them. This support was divided more unevenly by party, with 65 percent of Republicans in favor of the tariffs, compared to 24 percent of Democrats. Yet, the Republican Party has historically been associated with advocating free trade—why this stark departure from the traditional Republican position? Is it true that Republicans have shifted their position, or is there another explanation?

In 2017, the Pew Research Center conducted a study measuring opinions on free trade. They found a significant partisan gap. In 2017, 52 percent of Americans believed that free trade agreements between the United States and other countries are beneficial, with 40 percent viewing these agreements negatively. Views on free trade among Republicans, however, were significantly affected by the ascension of Donald Trump. In the final weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, only 29 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents held positive views of free trade, whereas a year and a half before, the favorability among those groups was 56 percent. The views on international free trade agreements (such as NAFTA) have rebounded somewhat, with 36 percent of Republicans now holding positive views.

Authors of another Pew study noted that Republicans’ views on free trade shifted in a more negative way during the 2016 presidential campaign, while Democrats’ views largely remained constant. In May 2015, one month before Trump announced his candidacy, more Republican voters believed free trade agreements had been beneficial than harmful for the United States. In 2016, more Republicans believed free trade agreements adversely affected the United States than believed benefited. These opinions are held more strongly by Trump supporters, with 68 percent of Trump supporters believing that their family’s finances had been harmed by free trade agreements.

Source: “Clinton, Trump Supporters Have Starkly Different Views of a Changing Nation,” Pew Research Center

In a survey conducted during the 2016 presidential race, Trump supporters were overwhelmingly more hostile toward free trade agreements. Twenty-seven percent of Trump supporters believed that free trade agreements have benefitted the United States, while 67 percent of these supporters believed these agreements have resulted in negative consequences. Comparatively, 40 percent of Cruz supporters and 44 percent of Kasich supporters held positive views toward free trade agreements.

Associative issue ownership, as defined by political scientists Stefaan Walgrave, Jonas Lefevere, and Anke Tresch, is the spontaneous association between an issue and a party. They found that if a party—or in this case, a highly visible presidential candidate and now president—persuasively discusses an issue, a link may be created between an issue and party, resulting in “issue ownership” perceptions. Both major parties are perceived to “own” certain areas and policy issues. The Republican Party has traditionally been associated with free trade and has “owned” the issue. By contrast, the Democratic Party is typically associated with environmental and social welfare issues. While it is generally hard to alter party stereotypes and associative issue ownership, Walgrave et al. suggested issue ownership can change by parties framing issues. Framing, here, can be defined as the process in which a speaker or authority defines a political issue or topic.

Political scientists Rune Slothuus and Claes de Vreese suggest that voters are more likely to follow frames presented by their own party, regardless of political awareness. Trump effectively and repeatedly framed the issue of free trade as a losing situation for the United States and its workers. Throughout his presidential campaign, he asserted that the United States was suffering because of a trade deficit with China and other nations. The matter of the actual trade deficit warrants its own discussion, but suffice it to say that simply having a trade deficit with other countries is not inherently a bad thing. By repeatedly denouncing trade relations, Trump was able to shift opinions held by Republicans, with the shift in opinions on free trade being most significant among his core supporters. Political scientists Michael Petersen, Rune Slothuus, and Lise Togeby found that voters are prone to following leaders of their preferred party when forming political opinions. It can be inferred that Trump supporters were so mobilized by and loyal to candidate Trump that they readily adopted his attitudes on trade.

By framing the use of tariffs as a method to shrink the United States’ trade deficit, Trump has been able to shift opinions among Republican partisans on the issue of trade. His rhetoric has the potential to also shift associative issue ownership on the issue. The change in public opinion on trade among Republicans closely follows the rise of Trump, indicating these partisans are simply following a frame presented by Trump and that they are viewing the issue of free trade through their own partisan perceptual screens.