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Under sustained assault from populist wings in both major political parties, the concept of free trade is barely holding its own in U.S. public opinion. As another presidential campaign unfolds, only 50% of registered voters believe that the current global trading practices of the United States have been a net positive for America over the past decade.

Thirty percent say it has been a net negative, with the rest unsure. Viewed in the context of other topics cited in a new RealClear Opinion Research poll -- migrants, tariffs, the importation of illegal drugs and theft of intellectual property, personal privacy, and the role of Big Tech – the picture that emerges is one of an anxious electorate, but one uncertain about solutions to the mounting challenges of the 21st century.

Adding to the mix is Donald Trump’s polarizing effect, along with concerns that tariffs the president levied on China -- and threatened to impose on Mexico -- could backfire. John Della Volpe, who directed the poll for RealClear Opinion Research, notes that although Democrats and Republicans view the impact of free trade essentially the same way, they diverge sharply on tariffs.

“While there’s close to political consensus regarding the impact free trade has had on the country over the last decade,” Della Volpe says, “stark partisan and generational divides emerge on whether President Trump’s tariff policy is the right plan to optimize America’s engagement in the global market moving forward.”

This survey is the fourth in a series of online RealClear Opinion Research polls examining Americans’ attitudes about key policy issues facing the country in the run-up to the 2020 elections. The first delineated the fault lines in U.S. politics; the second explored current attitudes about American Dream; and the third dealt with a series of health care-related issues, including “Medicare for All.” The latest survey queried 2,000 registered voters from June 28 through July 1.

If there has been one domestic policy issue in post-World War II American politics that bound together mainstream Republicans and Democrats, it was free trade. It has long been a near-article of faith among the establishment that the Smoot-Hawley tariff statute, a protectionist measure signed into law in 1930 by Herbert Hoover, helped wreck the world economy and exacerbated the Great Depression.

Although this view was not always shared by rank-and-file voters, particularly those in union households, a general consensus in modern American politics formed around the belief that access to global markets was a net gain for consumers and the U.S. economy, notwithstanding the disruption it posed to selected industries and families. Data compiled over the past three decades by the Gallup polling organization shows, not surprisingly, that Americans have the least confidence in free trade during economic downturns.

What’s different now is that the economy is doing well by almost every macro measure, meaning that one would expect Americans to have more faith in open global markets than they do. A couple of factors are likely at play here, starting with the rhetorical beating that free trade takes from President Trump – and from some of his prominent Democratic critics, most notably 2016 and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. Another dynamic is the pervasive sense of dread that hangs over American civic life these days, notwithstanding the robust economy.

“I’ve found that the question on which direction our country is headed is not solely – or even primarily – about the economy.”

John Della Volpe,
RealClear Opinion Research pollster

In the RealClearPolitics polling average, for instance, 55.6% of Americans believe the country is going in the wrong direction, while only 38.4% respond that it’s heading the right way.

“I’ve found that the question on which direction our country is headed is not solely – or even primarily -- about the economy,” says Della Volpe.  “It has proven to be a measure of how we feel as Americans, about America, at any given moment.”

He points to Gallup polls showing that national satisfaction was close to 70% after the space shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986 and even after the 9/11 attacks.

“Over the last 40 years, the times when Americans felt most satisfied about the direction of the country was when we were the most vulnerable, but also most connected,” Della Volpe adds. “In our hearts Americans want to be united and feel good about who we are, but sadly, for generations now the triggering events that have brought us together have been borne from tragedy and not inspiration.”

This RealClear survey takes place in the context of an unfolding presidential campaign and possible impeachment proceedings against the president, and also against the backdrop of other national and global problems that defy easy solutions. They range from an escalating crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border, a historic spike in deaths from opioid abuse, widespread Chinese theft of trade secrets, and privacy being compromised by Big Government and Big Tech alike.

Highlights from the survey on those issues include the following:


--More than seven-in-10 voters indicate that they are either very or somewhat concerned about China (and Mexico) not cracking down to stop the production and smuggling of fentanyl into the U.S.

--Voters have approximately the same level of concern regarding China stealing U.S. technology and trade secrets as they do about fentanyl from China. Nearly three-in-four (74%) cite concern. In both areas, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to be very concerned.


--Voters expressed less overall concern about Mexico not doing enough to stop the flow of migrants from Central America than about China stealing intellectual property and China and Mexico not cracking down on drugs smugglers, even though the migrant flow garners more headlines and handwringing than the other issues.  Overall, 65% of voters are concerned that Mexico isn’t doing more to stop the flow of migrants from Central American to the U.S. border; 29% are not concerned.

--Republicans are significantly more likely to be concerned that Mexico is not doing enough to contain the border crisis, while Democrats are less concerned. Some 86% of Republicans are concerned (57% “very” concerned and 29% “somewhat” concerned). This compares to 50% of Democrats who say they are “very” or “somewhat” concerned.


-- A majority of voters think it is unnecessary for Amazon, Apple and Google to be broken up on the grounds they are too big and powerful. There is less consensus regarding Facebook.

  • Amazon: 30% necessary, 55% unnecessary (-25)
  • Apple: 28% necessary, 55% unnecessary (-27)
  • Google: 32% necessary, 53% unnecessary (-21)
  • Facebook: 38% necessary, 48% unnecessary. (-10)

--While this break-up policy has been advocated by Elizabeth Warren, there are no significant differences in opinion by party affiliation. Democrats and Republicans are equally as likely to support splitting up these companies. The more significant divides are along generational lines, with Gen Z members and millennials being generally more willing to break up big technology companies.


 --Likewise, the generational divide on Trump’s trade policy is also stark. Most of the GOP support for tariffs comes from older party members. While 75% of Republicans who are baby boomers or members of the so-called silent generation (1925-1945) favor additional tariffs on China, support falls to 56% when Gen Z and millennial Republicans are polled. (GOP members of Generation X, those born between 1965 and 1980, favor this policy by 62% to 24%.)

--Democrats and Republicans do not perceive the risks and rewards of free trade differently. A slim majority in both parties say it has reaped positive benefits (53% Democrats, 55% Republicans). Independent voters are less certain: 40% see the positives, 35% the negatives, and 25% are unsure.

--Partisan gaps do arise on addressing trade imbalances. Republicans are three times more likely than Democrats to support new tariffs on China. More than two-thirds of Democrats find Trump’s tariffs detrimental, while only 18% of Democrats describe the policy as helpful. The inverse is true for Republicans: 70% believe Trump’s policy has produced positive results while only 17% say negative. As for independents -- those elusive swing voters -- they are more aligned with Democrats, as 47% view tariffs negatively while only 35% believe they’ve been productive. Overall, a plurality of voters (48%) believe Trump’s tariffs are a net negative for the country, with 39% believing they net positive results. 

--Viewing tariffs through the lens of the Electoral College, the news for the president is better. Voters from the states he won in 2016 are evenly split on tariffs, with 43% believing his policy is having a positive impact and 43% saying negative. In “blue” states, it’s another story: Only 33% say it’s been positive, with 54% saying negative.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington bureau chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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