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Why Trump’s steel tariffs may end up helping him politically

- March 7, 2018

After saying he would impose new tariffs on steel and aluminum imports last week, President Trump tweeted, “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” Global markets, members of Congress, including House Speaker Paul D. Ryan, and most economists quickly disagreed. So did Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser, who has now resigned.

Despite these objections, the fact remains: Protectionism can be politically popular. So will these tariffs benefit Trump? It remains to be seen. My research shows Americans’ views of protectionism depend on whose jobs are being protected. Steel jobs might be particularly popular.

Trump himself sees steel as particularly important:

He is not the first president to think this. George W. Bush also instituted steel tariffs, and the idea of protecting steel appears frequently in political campaign ads. Politicians appear to believe that protecting steel jobs resonates with Americans.

There is something to this belief. In 2014, I conducted an experiment in which 500 Americans were randomly assigned to watch a political ad or to watch nothing. The group that saw the ad watched “A Couple Miles,” which was an ad for Sal Pace, an unsuccessful Democratic challenger in Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District in 2012. In the ad, a steelworker describes how Pace changed regulations to keep non-U.S. steel from being used in Colorado building projects. The ad showed images of the narrator, a bridge built with Chinese steel and multiple shots of American steelworkers.

Both groups then answered this question: “Some people have suggested placing new limits on imports to protect American jobs. Others say that such limits would raise consumer prices and hurt American exports. What do you think? Do you favor or oppose placing new limits on imports — or haven’t you thought much about this?”

In the group that did not see the ad, 38 percent supported increasing limits on imports, while 26 percent opposed. Many (37 percent) did not express an opinion and said they had not thought about this. This is a typical pattern. In a 2012 survey conducted by the American National Election Studies, 38 percent supported limits on imports, 18 percent opposed them, and 44 percent had no opinion.

The group that watched the ad was different. A majority (52 percent) supported trade limits, while 20 percent opposed them. Only 28 percent did not have an opinion. In short, the steel-focused ad helped more people form an opinion — and those opinions came down in favor of protection.

So why would the ad have this effect? One reason might be the focus on Chinese imports (although, in fact, China supplies a small percentage of steel and aluminum imports to the United States). The political scientists Edward Mansfield and Diana Mutz and others have shown that xenophobia is associated with support for protectionism.

The workers depicted in the Pace ad may matter, too. They were all white. In my recent book, I argue that white American workers who typically appear in campaign ads about trade strike a chord with other white Americans.

For these reasons, the politics of Trump’s tariffs may play out differently than the economics. The economics suggest they are a loser. According to a January Bureau of Labor Statistics report, about 377,000 Americans work in metal manufacturing jobs that could be protected by these tariffs.

Meanwhile, many more Americans work in industries that would suffer if the tariffs increase price of steel and aluminum — including manufacturing industries like transportation (1.6 million jobs) and machinery (1.1 million jobs) and as well as nonmanufacturing industries such as construction (6.9 million jobs). As MillerCoors reminded us, the beverage industry (244,600 jobs) needs its cans. The experience with Bush’s short-lived steel tariffs, which reportedly resulted in 200,000 job losses, suggests steel-consuming industries suffer more than steel-producing industries gain.

That may not matter to an American public who is ambivalent about free trade and responsive to protectionist messages that play on nationalist and racial attitudes.

Alexandra Guisinger is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University and the author of “American Opinion on Trade” (2017). Her research focuses on domestic and international reactions to countries’ trade, capital and exchange-rate policies. Follow her on Twitter @A_Guisinger.