New Firehouse/Optimus Survey Finds Free Trade Views Divided and at Crossroads

February 28, 2018

As the Trump Administration considers imposing new tariffs on international trade, voters are deeply divided. Modern day trade issues do not cleave voters along traditional partisan lines, leaving many voters uncertain about their own positions. As Washington gears up for potentially the biggest trade fights in a generation, all sides have reason for optimism and concern.

We partnered with the data analytics team at 0ptimus to do a big segment read of likely midterm voters. We interviewed 2,553 likely midterm voters in Florida, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, and asked about international trade, NAFTA, and effects of trade agreements on daily life.

Key Findings:
• Trade agreements are underwater with voters overall at the moment, but a plurality of them are undecided on how they feel about them. For example: Of those surveyed, 25.8% think that NAFTA helps create jobs in the US, 34% disagree with that statement, and 40.2% are not sure. More Democrats believe that NAFTA creates jobs than not (34.5% to 22.2%), while Republicans mostly disagree (18.9% to 44.1%). When asked about how NAFTA affects prices, 28.9% of midterm voters believe it makes goods less expensive, 29.8% believe it makes them more expensive, and 41.3% say it makes no difference.
KEY POINT: Free trade now finds more supporters in the Democratic party than the Republican party, but the politics is very fluid since many voters are undecided (fig 1).

• If the ongoing NAFTA negotiations do not result in a new agreement, voters are amazingly divided on how to proceed. 34.5% say keep the current agreement, 33.8% say withdraw from NAFTA, and 31.7% are not sure either way. Among partisans, 54.6% of Democrats say keep the current agreement, compared to just 18.4% of Republicans. Inversely, 50.8% of Republicans say withdrawing is the right course of action, compared to 15.2% of Democrats. Independents are split right down the middle, with 31.9% saying withdraw and 30.6% saying maintain the current agreement.
KEY POINT: There is no consensus on what to do next if the NAFTA talks fail, but there is a partisan split. Different states have somewhat different takes, too (fig 2).

• Voters are also divided on whether they would be willing to pay higher prices on cars in exchange for tariffs. 52.6% say they are willing to pay more for cars if that’s necessary to limit imports of steel and help the US steel industry. Republicans are more supportive, with 60.3% saying they would be willing to pay more, compared with only 42.6% of Democrats. Similarly, 48.6% say they would be willing to pay more for cars if the US imported fewer foreign cars and car parts.
KEY POINT: About half of all voters say they are willing to pay more for cars if that helps the US steel and automotive industries.

• Most voters do not believe their jobs are dependent on international trade. Only 13.6% say their jobs do depend on trade, while 69.3% say they do not, and the remaining 17.1% are unsure. The state most perceived to be affected is Pennsylvania, where 18% say their jobs depend on trade; Florida is the least perceived affected, with 10.2% saying the same.
KEY POINT: Most voters don’t perceive a direct employment benefit from international trade, creating a potential opportunity for advocates of free trade.

Methodology: Between 2/23/2018 – 2/25/2018, we surveyed 2,553 modeled likely midterm voters in Florida (N = 820), Wisconsin (N = 478), Pennsylvania (N = 641) and Ohio (N = 614) via IVR, landline only. Likely voters were defined as registered voters having voted in the 2010 or 2014 midterm elections, plus the 15% additional most likely to turnout based on in-house turnout score modeling. Margin of error varies by question and segment, but is generally +/- 2.1% for topline results. Sample was weighted by state, age, gender, and party based on 2014 midterm turnout in the latest L2 voter file for each state. Results were then re-balanced based on these cohorts.