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In U.S., Positive Attitudes Toward Foreign Trade Stay High

Story Highlights

  • 70% see foreign trade as opportunity, 25% as threat to economy
  • Opinions stable this year after shift toward more positive views in 2017
  • Views of trade related to health of job market

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' increasingly positive views of foreign trade have stabilized after spiking last year. A strong majority of U.S. adults (70%) see foreign trade as an opportunity for U.S. economic growth through increased exports rather than a threat to the economy from foreign imports (25%). Before last year, no more than 58% had held the positive view of trade.

Views of Foreign Trade as U.S. Opportunity Stay High

The results are based on Gallup's annual World Affairs poll, conducted Feb. 1-10. The issue of trade received significant attention in the last presidential campaign, with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders criticizing U.S. trade deals for their effect on U.S. workers and companies. Trump said he would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with bilateral deals that would better protect U.S. interests. In his first week as president, Trump announced the U.S. was withdrawing from TPP, and his administration continues efforts to re-negotiate the terms of NAFTA.

Since Trump took office, Americans' views of foreign trade have been more positive than ever previously recorded, with a record 72% last year seeing it as an opportunity for U.S. growth. That represented a 14-percentage-point increase from the prior highs measured in 2015 and 2016.

Over time, Americans' views of trade have varied, with the public tending to be wary of trade at times when the economy was weaker. In 1992 and from 2005 through 2012, Americans were either divided on trade or tilted toward saying it represented a threat to the U.S. economy. During the mid-1990s through 2003 and from 2013 until now, when the economy was relatively healthy, the public has been more positive about trade.

Since 1992, views of trade have varied along with changes in the unemployment rate. When the unemployment rate has been higher, more Americans have viewed trade as a threat to the U.S. economy. The statistical correlation between those two measures is +.51.

Trend: Views of Foreign Trade vs. U.S. Unemployment Rate

Gallup has also seen a clear relationship between Americans' evaluations of the job market and their opinions of foreign trade. On average since 2002, 66% of Americans who said it was "a good time to find a quality job" have seen foreign trade as an opportunity for growth, while 28% have seen it as a threat to the economy. In contrast, those who believed it was "a bad time" to find a job have been divided in their opinions of trade -- with 47% saying it is an opportunity for growth and 45% a threat to the economy.

In the current survey, majorities of Americans view trade positively regardless of their assessments of the job market, but a significant gap between the two groups persists. Seventy-five percent of those who say it is now a good time to find a quality job view foreign trade as an opportunity for growth, compared with 61% of those who think it is a bad time.

Views of Trade Similar by Partisanship, Differ by Education

In contrast to what is seen on most issues, partisans show little difference in their opinions about trade. Currently, 71% of Democrats, 71% of independents and 68% of Republicans say foreign trade is an opportunity for U.S. growth. The lack of party differences is consistent with what Gallup has seen in most years. Since 2000, on average, slight majorities of all three party groups have expressed positive attitudes about trade.

Opinions of Foreign Trade, by Party Identification
Current survey 2000-2018 average
% %
Opportunity for economic growth
Republicans 68 53
Independents 71 53
Democrats 71 55
Threat to U.S. economy
Republicans 27 40
Independents 23 39
Democrats 25 38

All three party groups are more positive about trade now than they were in 2016.

The lack of differences among Republican and Democratic identifiers may reflect that the party organizations have not taken consistently opposing sides on the issue, as they do on many others. Leaders in both parties have promoted free trade deals (George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton favored NAFTA, and George W. Bush and Barack Obama favored TPP) as well as criticized them (Trump and Sanders).

Historically, education has been strongly related to views of trade. In the current survey, 78% of college graduates and 66% of college nongraduates see trade as an opportunity for growth. That 12-point education gap is smaller than the average 18-point education gap since 2000 -- 66% vs. 48%, respectively.

Both college graduates and nongraduates soured on foreign trade between 2005 and 2012, but majorities of college graduates have always maintained the view that it is an economic opportunity. In recent years, both groups have become more positive about trade, though the increase has been proportionately larger among college nongraduates.

College Graduates Consistently More Positive About Trade

Bottom Line

Americans' opinions of foreign trade have varied over time, and the health of the economy is one reason why. When Americans feel better about the economy, particularly the job market, they are less likely to believe trade is a threat to the economy and more likely to see it as an opportunity for economic growth. Gallup has found similar shifts in views of environmental protection versus economic growth, depending on the health of the economy.

Both Trump and Sanders raised the profile of the foreign trade issue, but it is not clear that the public has adopted their more cautious attitudes about foreign trade. In fact, Americans are now more positive about the potential benefits of trade to the U.S. economy than they have been at any point since 1992.

Recently, Gallup found Americans evenly divided in their opinions of Trump's handling of the trade issue. So it is unclear to what extent his positions on the issue and his policy actions have affected Americans' views of trade in comparison to the larger economic forces affecting the country.

Survey Methods

Results for this Gallup poll are based on telephone interviews conducted Feb. 1-10, 2018, with a random sample of 1,044 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±4 percentage points at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Each sample of national adults includes a minimum quota of 70% cellphone respondents and 30% landline respondents, with additional minimum quotas by time zone within region. Landline and cellular telephone numbers are selected using random-digit-dial methods.

View survey methodology, complete question responses and trends.

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