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When Did Democrats Become America’s Free Trade Believers?

As Washington debates “fast track” trade negotiating authority, politicians are out of sync with a turn in public sentiment.

BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 17:  Farmers from across Germany march to protest against industrialized agriculture, the TTIP trade agreement and genetically-modified agriculture in front of the Reichstag on January 17, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposed trade agreement between the European Union and the USA and whose negotiations are still in progress that has drawn strong criticism from a wide range of European regions and associations.  (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
BERLIN, GERMANY - JANUARY 17: Farmers from across Germany march to protest against industrialized agriculture, the TTIP trade agreement and genetically-modified agriculture in front of the Reichstag on January 17, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposed trade agreement between the European Union and the USA and whose negotiations are still in progress that has drawn strong criticism from a wide range of European regions and associations. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)

The House of Representatives returns to Washington the first week of June and high on its agenda is consideration of “fast track” trade negotiating authority also known as Trade Promotion Authority (TPA). As one of its last actions before leaving town for the Memorial Day recess, the Senate passed fast track by a vote of 62-37, after a contentious debate. Observers believe the House vote is too close to call, with several dozen Republicans threatening to vote against passage and fewer than two dozen Democrats promising to vote in favor.

Pundits are already framing the fast-track fight in the House as a classic confrontation between free-trade Republicans backed by the business community and wary Democrats supported by organized labor. At issue are concerns about the transparency of trade negotiations, the potential for corporations to use investment dispute settlement mechanisms to overturn domestic health and safety regulations, new intellectual property protections that drive up the cost of pharmaceuticals for developing countries, labor and environmental standards, and foreign currency manipulation. Moreover, some Republicans are leery of giving this Democratic president any more power or a victory for his legacy.

But outside the Washington Beltway, the broader public’s underlying concern is, as it has been for years, the impact of trade agreements on the economy, jobs, and wages. Americans are divided over whether trade deals help or hurt economic growth, according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted in mid-May. Many Americans believe that such agreements destroy jobs and lower wages. Suffice to say that an argument that fast track will lead to trade deals that spur growth and create jobs may find little political traction with the public.

But, contrary to the alignment of political forces in Washington, among the general public liberal Democrats are somewhat more likely than conservative Republicans to think that free trade is good for the country. And, in a new development, more Americans now believe that free trade agreements have helped rather than hurt their family finances. This is particularly true among young people and Hispanics, a potent new constituency for trade which also happens to be disproportionately Democratic-leaning.

By a margin of 58 percent to 33 percent, Americans believe that free trade is good for the nation. Such sentiment is particularly strong among Hispanics (71 percent) and 18-to-29 year olds (69 percent). Support for the principle of free trade is broadly shared across gender, race, age, income, education, and party divisions. And it’s not a new phenomenon. Numerous Pew Research surveys over the years have found that most Americans think that global trade and economic engagement is good for the country.

But the public is divided on the overall economic impact of government action to sign free-trade deals: 31 percent say they make the economy grow, 34 percent say they slow the economy down. However, this is a more positive outlook than in 2010, when just 19 percent said free-trade agreements make the economy grow. Moreover, 43 percent of Americans now say that trade agreements have helped their family finances, while 36 percent say their finances have been hurt. In 2010, just 26 percent said their finances had been helped by trade agreements, and 46 percent said their finances had been hurt. In 2010, only 38 percent of young people, those under 30, attested to a personal financial advantage from trade agreements. Now 56 percent of young people see financial benefits from free trade. Notably, a 47 percent plurality of liberal Democrats says trade agreements have helped their family finances. Only 36 percent of conservative Republicans agree.

The new Pew Research survey has also surfaced stark class differences about the impact of trade accords on people’s personal finances. Among those with family incomes of $100,000 or more, far more feel they have been helped (52 percent) than hurt (29 percent) financially. But among those in the lowest income group (less than $30,000), 38 percent say their finances have benefited from free trade agreements, while 44 percent say they have been hurt.

On the politically potent issues of jobs and wages, 46 percent of Americans voice the view that trade agreements lead to job losses in the United States, while the same percentage says they make U.S. wages lower. There has been little change in the public’s negative view about trade’s impact on wages, but sentiment that trade deals kill jobs is down 9 percentage points since 2010. Nevertheless, only 11 percent think trade raises wages and just 17 percent believe it generates jobs.

As the House fast-track debate evolves, one interesting question will be the extent to which it reflects the same old inside-the-Beltway battle of protectionists vs. free traders. Or whether it begins to mirror the more nuanced sentiment now evident in public opinion: where liberal Democrats, and their supporters among Hispanics and the young, are more supportive of trade than conservative Republicans and their supporters among older voters.

Carsten Koall/Getty Images

About the Author

Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. @bruceestokes

Bruce Stokes is the director of global economic attitudes at the Pew Research Center. @bruceestokes

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