September 3, 2019 | By Bettina Hammer

Where Americans Think the Trade War Will Hurt

International economic disputes – like the trade war with China – have domestic effects, ranging from changes in an individual’s finances to impacts on local and national economies. Polling data from the past eighteen months show that Americans are most concerned about the trade war harming their local economies, with rising concern about jobs and the cost of products and steady concern over the national economy. With China’s August 23 announcement of tariffs on American products including agricultural goods, aircrafts, and cars, and President Trump’s retaliatory tariff increases, which hike existing tariffs up to 30% from 25% and upcoming tariffs up to 15% from 10%, the American publics’ concerns may sharpen as new tariffs hit consumer goods.

Americans Worry about the US Economy

American have consistently worried that the national economy will be harmed by the trade dispute, though they are less concerned about the national economy than they are about their local and state economies.

In March 2018, four in ten Americans (42%) said that putting a tariff on imports of steel and aluminum from other countries would hurt the US economy. A little under three in ten (27%) said that it would help and fewer than two in ten (18%) said it would have no impact, according to a Marist Poll. When a CBS News poll framed tariffs in the context of a trade war, half (49%) said that the US economy would come out worse in the long run, while two in ten each thought the economy would come out better (22%) or there would be no difference (20%).

These numbers have held steady into 2019. When asked in May by Fox News whether the increase in tariffs on Chinese imports would help or hurt the US economy in the long run or not make much of a difference either way, a plurality (45%) said that it would hurt, 34 percent said it would help, and 11 percent said it would not make much difference.

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Americans Also Worry Their Local Economies Will Suffer

Over the past year, Americans have consistently worried that their local and state economies will be harmed as a result of the trade dispute. According to the US Chamber of Commerce, 29 states are at risk of extremely significant damage, though it is important to note that the Chamber has taken an openly anti-tariff stance and that it anticipates at minimum significant damage for every state. A different analysis by Deutsche Bank names Louisiana, Alaska, South Carolina, Alabama, and Washington as the states most affected by China’s tariffs.

A June 2018 Monmouth University poll found that 64 percent of Americans were very or somewhat concerned that a trade war would hurt their local economy, with 36 percent not too or not at all concerned. This sentiment held steady into May 2019: another Monmouth University poll found that 62 percent of Americans say they are very or somewhat concerned about harm to their area’s economy, with 35 percent not too or not at all concerned. Notably, the 2018 Chicago Council Survey registered an even higher level of concern over the local economy (72% very or somewhat concerned, 27% not too or not at all concerned).

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At the state level, concern is similar, according to a Suffolk University poll. A plurality (47%) say that imposing stiffer tariffs on China would hurt the economy in their state, followed by 22 percent who do not anticipate an impact and 9 percent who think that stiffer tariffs will help their state economy.

Americans Grow More Worried about Prices

Recent polls show that majorities of Americans think that the trade dispute will harm US consumers. But that wasn’t always the case. At the beginning of the trade war, Americans were divided on how the trade dispute would impact the prices of consumer goods.

As of May 2019, six in ten Americans (62%) say that American consumers will bear the costs of tariffs on Chinese goods, according to a Monmouth University poll. Only two in ten (23%) say that this burden will fall to Chinese producers, while one in ten (8%) think that both will bear the costs equally.

But polls from the spring and summer of 2018 highlight just how unsure Americans used to be, with different polls suggesting different views. A Washington Post-Schar School poll in July 2018 found that three in four Americans (74%) thought the tariff situation between the United States and China was bad for the cost of products in the United States, with less than one in four (22%) saying it was good for prices.

But Americans were less worried when it came to steel and aluminum tariffs. Three months earlier, in March 2018, only four in ten Americans (40%) thought that placing a tariff on steel and aluminum from other countries would lead to an increase in the price of consumer goods, according to an AP-NORC poll. An equal proportion (39%) thought the opposite, that placing such a tariff would lead to a decrease in prices, and two in ten (19%) thought that placing a tariff would have no effect. A Marist poll from the same month on steel and aluminum tariffs reached a third conclusion: 64 percent of Americans thought that such a tariff would increase prices of things they buy, with only 4 percent saying they would decrease prices (24% said it would make no difference and 8% were unsure).

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In 2018, Americans Grew Worried about Harm to Jobs

At the outset, Americans were unsure how tariffs would impact jobs -- though slightly larger proportions anticipated negative than positive outcomes in early March 2018. Polling from later that summer shows a solid majority expecting a negative impact.

A Quinnipiac University poll found that a plurality of Americans (36%) said imposing a 25% tariff on steel imports and a 10% tariff on aluminum imports would be bad for American jobs. Similar proportions thought that it would be good for American jobs (26%) or that it would have no impact (24%). When asked in an AP-NORC poll that same month how the number of jobs would change, Americans were almost perfectly divided: about one in three said it would increase (32%), about one in three said it would decrease (35%), and about one in three said there would be no change (31%).

A Washington Post/Schar School poll from late June 2018 without a neutral option found a majority of Americans (56%) saw the tariffs as bad for jobs in the US, while a minority (39%) thought they would be good for US jobs. Over the course of summer 2018, polls registered a rise in concern over jobs.

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In 2018, Mixed Result on Personal Impact

Surveys show that Americans have wavered on how they personally would be affected by the trade war between China and the United States.

In June 2018, a CBS News poll found that six in ten Americans (59%) thought they would be personally affected by a trade war for the worse, compared to one in ten (10%) who thought they would be affected for the better (26% thought they would not be affected). At that stage, many Americans worried about personal harm from the trade dispute.

But a poll soon after found that Americans weren’t sure how their personal finances would fare. According to a July 2018 Gallup Poll, 43 percent of Americans said they did not think the new tariffs would make much difference for their family’s financial situation in the long term. Two in ten (20%) predicted the tariffs would make their family’s financial situation better, but a third (33%) said the opposite. These polls highlight just how unsure Americans are when it comes to personal impacts of the trade dispute.

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The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy. 

The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion. 

The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.


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