Polls Show Americans Oppose Our Trade Policy but Like Trade

03/11/2015 10:26 am ET | Updated May 11, 2015

The corporate PR firms were at full tilt yesterday when this year's Gallup "trade" poll findings came out. The mission was to counter the growing congressional and public opposition to fast-track trade authority for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a massive 12-nation NAFTA-style agreement.

They did not have much to work with. Polling shows that the public is increasingly savvy to the fact that fast-tracking the TPP would make it easier for corporations to offshore our jobs. And it would push down wages by pitting American workers against those in Vietnam making less than 60 cents per hour.

The tactic? Try to hype the predictable answer to the same question Gallup has asked for the past 22 years: "What do you think foreign trade means for America?" The answer repeated the standard finding: Americans support trade conceptually. (Fifty-eight percent continue to view foreign trade as "an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports," while 33 percent view it as "a threat to the economy from foreign imports.")

But a litany of trade-related polls over the last two decades also show that Americans do not support the status quo trade policy.

The Gallup poll does not inquire about people's views on the current trade policy agenda. It made no mention of fast-track, the TPP, or the TTIP, much less of the issues driving the current trade policy debate (e.g., job offshoring, downward pressure on wages, currency, etc.). But polls that focus on those issues have consistently negative findings:

  • A September 2014 Pew poll showed that only 20 percent of Americans think that status quo trade has led to U.S. job creation, while 50 percent of Americans -- half of Democrats and more than half of Republicans -- say it has spurred job losses. The same poll confirms what Gallup found and reinforces what polls have consistently shown for years: Americans support trade in general but oppose the NAFTA model of trade that has offshored U.S. jobs, spurred massive deficits, stagnated middle-class wages and contributed to unprecedented levels of U.S. income inequality.
  • An even smaller share of Americans -- just 17 percent -- believe that trade has increased U.S. wages, while 45 percent, across the political spectrum, see trade as contributing to falling wages for U.S. workers, according to the September 2014 Pew poll. And only one third of Americans thought trade has lowered consumer prices, while nearly as many said the result was price increases.
  • The findings followed an April 2014 NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in which a plurality of Americans said they would support "a candidate who says that free trade with other countries will mainly be negative for America because it will cause the loss of U.S. jobs to other countries, which will hurt wages and jobs here." A plurality also stated that the recent model of globalization has been "bad because it has subjected American companies and employees to unfair competition and cheap labor."
  • A January 2014 poll by Democratic Hart Research Associates and GOP Chesapeake Beach Consulting found that 62 percent of the U.S. voting public opposes fast-tracking the TPP. Opposition to fast-tracking the TPP was the majority position across all age groups, income brackets and geographic regions.

Indeed, yesterday's Gallup polls says little about trade policy and more about people's perceptions of the improving state of the U.S. economy relative to the lows of the Great Recession.

Gallup conducts this poll each year. The percent seeing trade as a "threat" peaked in 2008 during the height of the financial crisis, and has come down since. The percent seeing trade as an "opportunity" was at its lowest point in 2008 and has come up since. Yesterday's results are an unsurprising continuation of that trend -- an outgrowth of economic confidence, not an expression of opinion on the current trade policy agenda.

See this explanation from Gallup itself:

Gallup has found that perceptions of foreign trade may partly relate to Americans' confidence in the economy. And as the economy has improved significantly in the past year, it's likely that public fears about foreign trade have diminished, partly because of Americans' strengthening views of the U.S. economy.

The bottom line: By communicating their opposition to fast-tracking the TPP to the members of Congress who must vote on fast-track soon, Americans can make sure that their opposition cuts through any PR spin about an off-point poll.