President Trump’s electoral victory hinged on winning key Midwest states that had remained reliably Democratic for decades. In this region, where many former high-wage, low-skill manufacturing jobs were concentrated, the 2017 Chicago Council Survey finds evidence that the fiercely anti-trade rhetoric of the 2016 presidential campaign resonated. This is particularly true for individuals most directly affected by deindustrialization and the resulting job losses: those without postsecondary training and skills. Indeed, skepticism toward international trade sets apart those in the Midwest with a high school education or less, from both their non-postsecondary educated peers in other regions and from Midwesterners with postsecondary training.
International Trade – Not Automation – Is More to Blame for Job Losses
Although numerous studies demonstrate that automation – the elimination of jobs due to technology – is at least as responsible for manufacturing job losses as competition from trade, a majority of Americans (56%) still believe international trade is more responsible for the decline in US manufacturing employment than automation (42%).
This is a broadly-held viewpoint, with majorities of all Midwesterners (57%) and non-Midwesterners without postsecondary education (HS non-Midwesterners) (58%) in agreement. However, this is an even more common belief among Midwesterners without postsecondary education (HS Midwesterners). Fully two-thirds (66%) of HS Midwesterners find international trade more responsible for the decline of US manufacturing employment.
NAFTA and Trade Deals Don’t Benefit
This trade skepticism is again found in HS Midwesterners’ viewpoint of NAFTA. While the general US population slightly favors NAFTA (53% to 42%), and the overall Midwest’s outlook mirrors that breakdown, HS Midwesterners view the agreement more negatively than positively (44% to 48%). This contrasts strongly to HS non-Midwesterners, who view NAFTA more favorably (54% to 39%) than the general population.
Fewer HS Midwesterners also see international trade as good for consumers like them (65%) or good for creating jobs in the United States (49%). HS non-Midwesterners view international trade more positively on these metrics (72% and 57%, respectively), as does both the full sample and the Midwest overall.
Similarly, a small majority (52%) of HS Midwesterners say that trade deals either mostly benefit other countries or benefit neither the United States nor other countries. These views are shared with only 41 percent of HS non-Midwesterners, and 40 percent of the general population.
Raising Trade Barriers Seen More Positively
Consequently, when viewing barriers to trade, such as tariffs, HS Midwesterners are less keen (40%) on agreements to lower trade barriers even when they are coupled with government assistance programs. 41 percent oppose such agreements outright.
This contrasts to higher percentages of all respondents (51%), Midwesterners (50%), and HS non-Midwesterners (50%) who favor agreements to lower international trade barriers, provided they are tied with government assistance.
Possibly contributing to this viewpoint is that Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA), a specific government program intended to lessen the costs of trade-related job losses, is ineffective in helping workers retrain and find new work with similar wages. In the Midwest, a region with a higher incidence of TAA claims, this may have a disproportionate effect.
Paying Attention to Midwestern Trade Attitudes
Although Midwesterners overall differ only slightly from the general population in their views of international trade, Midwesterners without postsecondary education are clearly more suspicious of trade’s benefits than their non-postsecondary educated peers.
This is not an inconsequential difference. In the Midwest, just over 40% of those 25 years or older have a high school education or less. Numbering over 18 million, the size of this group has wide-ranging consequences.
Without careful consideration of how those with minimal training and skills view international trade and its knock-on effects, it will continue to prove difficult to build a political consensus around US trade policy. Likewise, without an appreciation of these voters’ sentiments toward trade’s role in lowering their job prospects, it may prove equally difficult for the Democrats to rebuild the Midwestern “Blue Wall” that President Trump took a wrecking ball to.
 All discussed comparisons between Midwesterners without postsecondary education (HS Midwesterners) and non-Midwesterners without postsecondary education (HS non-Midwesterners) are statistically significant with a 95% confidence level. Please see the 2017 Chicago Council Survey for more information.
Sample size: General Public (n=2,020); Midwesterners (n=900); HS Midwesterners (n=313); HS non-Midwesterners (n=647)