October 25, 2016

Election 2016 and the Politics of Trade

By Iain Whitaker, Assistant Director, Leadership Programs

Election 2016 has been a horror show for advocates of free trade. Until very recently President Obama, working with a Republican-led Congress, looked to be closing in on agreement for the twelve-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal that would, some hoped, provide a springboard for the similarly gargantuan Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Those heady days now feel long gone. Neither presidential candidate, nor any of the primary contenders, made a forceful case for trade. Both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are calling for TPP to be renegotiated. And NAFTA has become a slur. How did we get here?

It would be tempting to simply blame election-year politics. Certainly in today’s low-growth, stagnant-wage economy, it is politically easier to scapegoat trade than to defend it. The Electoral College hasn’t helped either. The most significant swing states—Ohio and Pennsylvania—have been especially hard hit by the decline of manufacturing, the latter state losing over 300,000 manufacturing jobs since 1998. While politicians and academics debate the causes of this trend, rust belt voters widely attribute it to trade agreements. As AFL-CIO deputy chief of staff Thea Lee noted during an October 17 Council discussion on trade, many Pennsylvanians still deeply resent what they see as Bill Clinton’s betrayal over NAFTA.

Yet NAFTA is a reminder that elections don’t have to be fought in a trade-skeptic climate. In the 1992 presidential election campaign Republican incumbent George H. W. Bush, who had negotiated NAFTA, and his Democratic challenger Bill Clinton both argued for what remains America’s largest trade deal. At a time when the US economy was struggling both nominees took significant political risks to stake their positions, Clinton facing particularly strong opposition from within his own party. They also confronted a robust challenge from third party candidate Ross Perot who famously warned that NAFTA would generate a “giant sucking sound” as jobs departed southward.

In theory the ingredients are today assembled to bake a similar bipartisan consensus on trade. According to the Chicago Council on Global Affairs’ 2016 survey of public opinion on foreign policy, most Americans view trade in a positive light; 59 percent believe it benefits the US economy, the highest level of support recorded since this question was first posed in 2004. Critically, majorities of both Democrats and Republicans support trade: 72 percent and 60 percent, respectively, believe trade is good for their own standard of living, Council data shows. It could be assumed, then, that the nominees could gain traction from taking a pro-trade stance trade. Yet exactly the opposite has occurred.

The Chicago Council Survey offers insight into this paradox. Of particular significance is the long-term decline in support for trade among supporters of what was historically the nation’s mercantilist party. In response to the statement that trade benefits the US economy, Council polling charts a steady fall in the number of Republicans voters who agree, from 60 percent in 2006 to 51 percent this year. Tellingly, among those respondents who identified Trump as their preferred presidential candidate, the number who back trade is only 42 percent. Further analysis by the Council’s public opinion team shows that older, non-college-educated, and white voters—a demographic category that aligns closely with Trump’s core support—generally hold more negative views on trade than other groupings.

Based on these numbers, attacking trade is a low-risk, high-reward election strategy for Trump. When he railed at the first presidential debate that “we have to renegotiate our trade deals, and we have to stop these countries from stealing our companies and our jobs” Trump was pitching directly to his base, while tapping growing discontent toward trade among more traditional Republican voters.

Council data also tracks a remarkable inversion of trade opinions by party affiliation. While the percentage of Republicans who believe trade is good for the US economy fell by 8 percent between 2004 and 2016, the same period recorded an astonishing 13 percent increase in support among those who identify as Democrats. Based on these trends Hillary Clinton should feel comfortable countering the prevailing trade-skeptical narrative. But context is critical; Clinton’s record makes her especially vulnerable to a small but vocal popular backlash against trade.

As first lady and as secretary of state Clinton played a close supporting role several major trade agreements, as Trump has keenly reminded voters. The Democratic nominee was directly implicated in the “disasters” of NAFTA, China’s accession to the WTO, and the US-Korea Free Trade Agreement Trump hammered in a speech to workers in Monessan, Pennsylvania in June. Bernie Sanders also exploited Clinton’s trade stigma during the primaries. Clinton voted “for virtually every trade agreement that has cost the workers of this country millions of jobs” he told viewers of Meet the Press in April.

While Clinton is boxed-in by her past, she also cannot look to her party for much support. At an October 6 panel discussion to mark the launch of the Chicago Council Survey, Wilson Center president Jane Harman noted that popular support for trade among Democratic voters is not reflected among Congressional Democrats. Lackluster Democratic support for Trade Promotion Authority in 2002 and 2015 illustrates this point. Today, in the absence of anyone making a strong “retail case for trade,” lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are being “slammed” by special interests over TPP, the former California congresswoman said.

Even in the increasingly unlikely event that TPP can pass during the lame duck session, the chances of America entering a new era of trade progress after November 8 are slim. Both nominees will be hostage to their own stump speech criticisms of trade’s impact on jobs and wages. Facing a climate of grievance, whipped up by more than a year of populist sloganeering, they have little room for maneuver. The geopolitical stakes are high. Speaking on the Council’s October 6 panel the Hoover Institution’s Kori Schake wondered why, if TPP fails, America’s Asian allies would look to cooperate with Washington in other, critical issues like security. Trade, Schake argued, is “the essential statement for America’s commitment to working with our allies.”

Explore these issues further at the upcoming Council programs:

Wednesday, October 26, American Leadership in An Era of Opportunity and Risk, with John Kerry, Secretary of State.

Tuesday, November 1, Trade Agendas in the US presidential Campaign, with Gary Hufbauer, Reginald Jones Senior Fellow, Peterson Institute for International Economics, in conversation with Phil Levy, senior fellow on the global economy, Chicago Council on Global Affairs.


The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization that provides insight – and influences the public discourse – on critical global issues. We convene leading global voices and conduct independent research to bring clarity and offer solutions to challenges and opportunities across the globe. The Council is committed to engaging the public and raising global awareness of issues that transcend borders and transform how people, business, and governments engage the world.

The Chicago Council on Global Affairs is an independent, nonpartisan organization. All statements of fact and expressions of opinion in blog posts are the sole responsibility of the individual author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Council.


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