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Public Opinion on Trade, or Why Mark Penn Had to Go

- April 8, 2008

Mark Penn’s departure from the Clinton campaign — after a friendly meeting with Colombian representatives to discuss promoting a trade agreement that Clinton opposes — provides a motivation to examine American opinion about trade. Doing so reveals the barriers that trade agreements face.

Public skepticism about free trade is rampant and hardly new. In his book on American attitudes toward foreign policy, Ole Holsti notes that in a series of Gallup polls in 1993, an average of only 38% of respondents favored NAFTA. More recently, Bryan Caplan finds that the public is, on average, likely to believe that trade agreements cost jobs or, at best, make no difference in job creation or loss. Many similar findings are here. The public’s attitude contrasts sharply with those of economists and other elites, who tend to support trade agreements (see again Holsti and Caplan, as well as the piece by Daniel Drezner that I discussed last week).

The contours of mass attitudes are even more interesting. In the 2006 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, respondents were asked this question:

bq. This year Congress also debated a new free trade agreement that reduces barriers to trade between the U.S. and countries in Central America. Some politicians argue that the agreement allows America to better compete in the global economy and would create more stable democracies in Central America. Other politicians argue that it helps businesses to move jobs abroad where labor is cheaper and does not protect American producers. What do you think? If you were faced with this decision, would you vote for or against the trade agreement?

Only 27% supported the agreement, 46% were opposed, and 27% did not know.

Notably, this is one of the few issues in American politics where you will not find a significant partisan cleavage. 51% of Democrats opposed CAFTA (vs. 22% support), as did 41% of Republicans (vs. 36% support). Independents mirrored Democrats.

Better predictors of attitudes are education and income. Those with less than a 4-year degree tended to oppose CAFTA (50% vs. 24%), but those with at least a 4-year degree were evenly split (39% vs. 39%). Support also increases with income, although only among the wealthiest respondents (those making $150K or more) was there even bare majority support for CAFTA.

In his new book A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World, William Bernstein writes:

bq. The world’s increasing dependency on the continuous flow of trade has made us both prosperous and vulnerable.

It’s clear that the public agrees with the latter but not the former.