June 15, 2015 | By Karl Friedhoff

Public Opinion and Its Support for Free(ish) Trade

A recent piece on Monkey Cage, a Washington Post blog, highlights public opinion polling that reveals a great many Americans—47 percent in the survey cited—simply haven’t thought that much about free trade. We probably didn’t need a survey to tell us that. With jobs, families, friends, hobbies, and other commitments very few people have the time or interest to sit down and contemplate the impact of free trade on their everyday lives.

Free trade is not a topic discussed at length in the media, and when it is discussed it is not usually about the positives. The subject comes up now as Congress debates granting President Obama Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) in negotiating the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). (The specifics of those deals is beyond the scope of this posting, but for thorough summaries of each see here and here. Note: both links point to PDFs.)

The ongoing tussle has caught the media’s attention because it has allied Congressional Republicans with President Obama as the president faces a revolt within his own party. All groups involved likely think they are acting in the interests of their electoral bases—or at least in the interest of their financial supporters—but who is more closely aligned with the public? That depends on which poll you cite and how you interpret the results.

The most recent (April 26-30) NBS News/Wall Street Journal survey shows that 37 percent think that free trade has helped the United States. While that is a plurality of respondents, nearly as many (31%) thought it hurt the US and 25 percent said it made little difference. That is not a clear consensus.

That same poll returned mixed results on NAFTA. Though 29% thought the impact was positive, 26 percent thought it was negative, and 32 percent said it had little impact.

A recently released survey of elite and public opinion by the Chicago Council also offers mixed results on trade. While two-thirds of the public says globalization is mostly good, just 14 percent of the overall public unconditionally favor lowering trade barriers. That number was 37 percent among Republican leaders and only 5 percent among Democratic leaders.

Instead, support among the public (50%) for lowering of trade barriers is based on the government establishing programs to help those that lose their jobs due to free trade. This is not robust support for free trade, suggesting opposition could rise should those programs be insufficient. Speaking of opposition, it should be noted that nearly one-third (31%) of the public opposed lowering trade barriers altogether.

Also of importance is that the questionnaire used the term “trade barriers” rather than free trade—a charged term. This leaves the possibility that responses may have differed significantly had the latter term been used.

A Gallup poll from earlier this year finds that 58 percent cited global trade as an opportunity versus 33% that cited it as a threat. But the same was not true in previous years. Positive attitudes on trade have ebbed and flowed. From 2005 to 2012, a plurality either cited that “foreign trade” was a threat or attitudes were evenly split.

Finally, a CBS News/New York Times poll from April 2009 found that 66 percent cited trade with other countries as good. But 60 percent of all respondents also noted that restrictions on that trade were necessary.
So what does this mean for TPP? In the previously cited Chicago Council survey, six-in-ten members of the public support the initiative. Combined with the other results, there does seem to be some level of goodwill toward free trade. But there is also enough data to call into question exactly how free that trade should be.

This is precisely what makes it such a contentious issue on Capitol Hill. Both sides have the polling and both sides think they are acting in the interest of the public. With nearly one-half of the public stating free trade is an issue they do not think much about, there is a lot of space for political maneuvering. Being aligned with the public on this issue can be as easy as grabbing the nearest—or at least the most convenient—survey results.


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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