Polling Shows NAFTA-style Trade Deals Becoming Even More Unpopular


The 2012 U.S. elections featured a bipartisan race to align campaign positions with the U.S. public’s opposition to status-quo trade policies. Recent polling indicates that U.S. public opinion has intensified from broad opposition to overwhelming opposition to NAFTA-style trade deals.

The presidential campaigns of Barack Obama and Mitt Romney deployed more than three times as many trade-themed ads as were used in the 2008 presidential race, creating a trade-reform-is-urgently needed narrative that reinforced the majority view of the U.S. public. A Kantar Media study found that presidential campaigns spent an unprecedented $68 million—about $34 million each—in ads attacking more-of-the-same trade policies. Trade-themed presidential ads aired an estimated 83,000 times in 2012, more than twice the number of trade-related airings in 2008. Of the 16 most-targeted media markets for these ads, nine were not located in the free-trade-wary Rust Belt, but in parts of the country that, despite prior support for “free trade,” received a heavy dose of campaigning for trade reform.

Following the presidential trend, 57 percent of candidates in competitive congressional races also campaigned on trade policy via ads or campaign websites. Out of more than 125 paid ads used by congressional candidates across 30 U.S. states, only one indicated support for any trade deals modeled on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). (It was from GOP candidate Linda Lingle, who lost her bid for Hawaii’s Senate seat.) Meanwhile, Senate candidates who employed ads against status quo trade won seats in Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Wisconsin, increasing the net number of fair-trade members of the Senate by at least six.

Such widespread campaigning against more-of-the-same on trade both reflected and reinforced the U.S. public’s broad rejection of the trade status quo enshrined in NAFTA-style “free trade” agreements (FTAs). A May 2012 Angus Reid Public Opinion poll found that U.S. respondents who believe that the United States should “renegotiate” or “leave” NAFTA outnumbered by nearly 4-to-1 those that say the country should “continue to be a member” (53 vs.15 percent). Support for the “leave” or “renegotiate” positions dominated among Republicans, Independents, and Democrats alike. Just 1 in 3 U.S. respondents thought that NAFTA benefitted the overall U.S. economy, and only 1 in 4 saw the pact as having benefitted U.S. workers.

Given such results, it is not surprising that the NAFTA-style “free trade” agreements (FTAs) passed by Congress in 2011 with Korea, Panama, and Colombia bring political liability. Immediately after passage, a plurality of U.S. voters expressed opposition to the FTAs in an October 2011 National Journal survey, with Republicans and Democrats showing equivalent levels of opposition. Republicans without a college education opposed the FTAs by a nearly 2-to-1 margin and women expressed especially high opposition.

In 2010, while testing Democratic messages for voter response, Democratic polling firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research found that 45 percent of voters were much more likely or somewhat more likely to support a Democratic candidate if he or she were to highlight an opponent’s support of the Colombia, Panama and South Korea FTAs. Of four possible messages, the anti-FTA message was just as powerful in swaying voters as a statement in support of tax cuts for the middle class rather than the rich. The anti-FTA message was more powerful than a message on opposing tax breaks for companies outsourcing U.S. jobs and statements linking the opposing candidate to former President Bush’s policies.

The full memo originally appeared at Public Citizen. 

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