Polling during his presidency suggests, however, that most Americans don’t really care about trade policy and have turned against Trump’s argument for a protectionist trade policy.
Trump, of course, is hoping to get his job approval rating up. It’s generally been stuck in the high 30s to low 40s. The problem for Trump is that Americans typically regard trade as one of the least important issues. Just 31% of Americans told Gallup late last year that it was an extremely important issue for the President and Congress to take up in 2019. That was tied for the lowest of any issue. The Pew Research Center found that only 39% said global trade was a top policy for them in 2019. That was the lowest of any issue polled. A miniscule 1% said trade was their most important issue for 2020 in a CNN open-ended question taken in March.
Not surprisingly, Trump’s trade wars have not moved his numbers at all. Trump started initiating tariffs of all sorts during the first half of 2018. This notably included a tariff on aluminum and steel, which was just lifted from Canada and Mexico. Before he ordered tariffs on aluminum and steel on most countries in March 2018, his approval rating in the FiveThirtyEight aggregate among voters was 43%. Six months later, it was 42% — where Trump’s approval rating also stands today.
But while Trump’s trade wars haven’t really moved his overall numbers, they do seem to have shifted views about him on trade and the larger conversation about trade policy in the United States.
After the 2016 election, Americans had a lot of hope about what Trump could do for trade policy. According to a December 2016 Fox News poll, 62% said Trump would “truly revise trade deals” with other countries to make them better for America. A minority (31%) disagreed. By December 2018, after renegotiating NAFTA, withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and adding a number of tariffs, only 40% said Trump had negotiated better trade deals. A plurality (47%) said he had not. In other words, Americans don’t trust like they once did on trade.
Americans are also far less likely to view Trump favorably in Quinnipiac University polling released last week when it comes to how he’s handling relations with China. That may have to do with his recent ramping up of a trade war with China. His net approval (approval – disapproval) on how he deals with China has dropped from +8 points in April 2017 to -10 points now. Notably, this is still a better net approval than Quinnipiac University has generally shown for the President overall. Indeed, Trump’s approval ratings on trade continue to somewhat better than his overall approval rating. Still, his ratings on trade-related issues have turned clearly negative.
Elections, though, are won and lost in the electoral college. Trump won in 2016 thanks to strength in the Midwest, where his protectionist tone seemed to provide him an electoral boost. But now, we see Trump’s ratings on trade are not any better in the Midwest.
In concert with this movement on American opinions of Trump and trade related policy, far more Americans now view free trade as a good thing than a bad thing. A Monmouth University poll taken this month found that 51% of Americans (and 53% of voters) say that free trade agreements are generally a good thing; just 14% say they are generally bad. Pew Research Center polling from 2018 generally showed the same thing with 56% saying free trade agreements with other countries have generally been a good thing, while only 30% say they have generally been a bad thing. (Monmouth has a higher percentage of “not sure” because it specifically offers that option.)
This recent polling is a dramatic turnaround from polling on the same questions taken during the 2016 campaign. Back in November 2015, 24% of Americans told Monmouth that free trade agreements were a good thing. A slightly larger 26% said it was a bad thing. Just before the 2016 election, Pew pegged the breakdown at 45% good thing and 43% bad thing. In other words, both pollsters indicate that positive opinion of free trade has jumped recently and negative opinion has fallen.
For those not convinced that Trump is moving these numbers, let’s take a closer look at the trendlines. Trump only started ramping up the trade wars in 2018. That lines up with Pew’s polling showing that the percentage of Americans thinking free trade was bad dropping a little during 2017 with the majority of movement coming in 2018. Monmouth, which didn’t poll on free trade in 2017, showed that opinion on free trade moved dramatically from 2016 to 2018, but hasn’t moved greatly since then.
The bottom line is this: This isn’t 2016 or even 2017 anymore. Americans don’t believe Trump has the magic touch on trade and have moved against his worldview on trade. His trade policies don’t look like they’re going to pull him to re-election.