Home | About Americans & the World | Search | Join Our ListServ | Contact Us

Global Issues >> International Trade

International Trade

On Balance, Feelings About Trade Lukewarm

As discussed above, while a strong majority of Americans have a favorable view of trade in principle, most have significant reservations about how trade has been put into practice. Thus, on balance, the net feeling about trade is lukewarm at best.

Questions that do not emphasize trade in principle, but rather how it has been practiced, find quite modest levels of support. An October 1999 PIPA poll question began: "As you may know, international trade has increased substantially in recent years. I would like to know how positive or negative you think the growth of international trade is, overall." Asked to respond on a scale of 0 to 10--with 0 being completely negative, 10 being completely positive and 5 being equally positive and negative--the mean rating was 5.51. Only 41% gave a score above 5. Rating international trade "for you personally," the mean score was 5.05, with just 31% giving a score above 5. Similarly, when presented with the fact that import tariffs have fallen from an average of 40 percent in the 1940s to about 6 percent today, only 41% of respondents said that was a good thing. A 42% plurality said it was neither good nor bad. Just 13% said it was a bad thing. [1]

Rating International Trade

How positive or negative do you think the growth of international trade is... on a scale... with 0 being completely negative, 10 being completely positive and 5 being equally positive and negative?

Mean Score
Percent Saying More Positive
International trade overall
June 2005
January 2004
October 1999
For you personally
January 2004
October 1999
For American workers
January 2004
October 1999
For American business
January 2004
October 1999

In October 2005 GMF asked questions about who would “benefit” or “suffer” from “freer international trade.” Asked about “you personally,” 49% thought they would benefit (9% “a great deal”), but only 23% were willing to say they would “suffer” (quite a strong term). Twenty-two percent volunteered that neither would happen to them. Asked the same question about “consumers,” 66% said consumers would benefit. A similar distribution of responses was found in a December 2000 NBC/Wall Street Journal poll that asked about Clinton-era trade agreements. Just 40% said those agreements "made things better." Twenty-four percent felt they made things worse, 22% felt they made no difference either way, and another 14% weren't sure. [2]

Questions that ask respondents to evaluate trade in a context in which its benefits are weighed against its costs in practice find bare majorities in support of trade, or a divided response.

For example, a Gallup question asked respondents to evaluate whether "foreign trade" was "an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports or a threat to the economy from foreign imports." In this context, six polls taken since 1994 have found only a plurality or small majority ranging between 49% and 56% endorsing trade as an opportunity, while 35-41% said they viewed it as a threat. [3]

When respondents are asked to evaluate trade-with the highlighted benefit of trade as low prices and economic growth, and the highlighted cost of trade as wage and job stability- a bare majority endorses trade. In PIPA's October 1999 poll, respondents were presented with two arguments. Fifty-one percent favored the statement, "Free trade is a good idea, because it can lead to lower prices and the long-term growth of the economy," while 44% endorsed the one that made the case, "Free trade is a bad idea, because it can lead to lower wages and people losing their jobs." [4] However, when poll questions do not ask respondents to evaluate trade per se, but to make a choice between the benefits of lower prices and job stability, the concern for lost jobs tends to have a higher priority. The question above poses this trade-off in the context of broader benefits to the overall economy, thus the underlying support for free trade in principle leads a slight majority to opt in favor of free trade.

A question that associated trade with benefits of expanding exports, as opposed to the threat to jobs, found a divided response. In April 2000 a Gallup/CNN/USA Today poll found that 43% agreed with the argument that "free trade would be good for the U.S. because it would help the U.S. economy by expanding exports." By contrast, 45% agreed with the opposing argument, "free trade would be bad for the U.S. because it would end up costing the U.S. jobs." [5]

Still, other polls have found a plurality rejecting trade. When NBC/Wall Street Journal asked respondents to choose between two statements in May 2000, 48% chose the one that argued, "Foreign trade has been bad for the US economy, because cheap imports from abroad have hurt wages and cost jobs here at home." Just 34% chose the alternative assertion, that "Foreign trade has been good for the US economy, because demand for US products abroad has resulted in economic growth and jobs for Americans here at home." Apparently the consequences to jobs associate more powerfully with the down side of trade than the up side. [6] The same dynamic occurred when an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll (June 1997) asked respondents how they felt about the American economy becoming increasingly global. A 48% plurality said this "is bad because it has subjected American companies and employees to unfair competition and cheap labor," while 42% said it "is good because it has opened up new markets for American products and resulted in more jobs." [7]

Similarly, when NBC/Wall Street Journal in September 1997 asked respondents to choose between a Congressional candidate who endorsed free trade based on its benefits to jobs, and one who criticized it based on its threat to jobs, the response was divided. Forty-four percent said they would choose a candidate who said "free trade with other countries will mainly be positive for America because it will create many high-skill, high-technology jobs that pay good wages." Forty-five percent said they would prefer a candidate who said "free trade with other countries will be mainly negative for America, because it will cause the loss of U.S. jobs to other countries, which will hurt wages and jobs here." [8]

A question that only asked about the imports, and thus did not elicit the underlying support for trade in principle, found a firm majority denouncing imports' effects on jobs despite the benefit of lower prices. In September 1997, NBC News/Wall Street Journal asked respondents to choose between two statements. Fifty-five percent chose the one that said "imports from abroad are, on the whole, bad for the US because they take away American jobs and hurt the wages of American workers." On the other hand, only 33% chose the statement that "imports from abroad are, on the whole, good for the US because they make available more and cheaper goods for American consumers." [9]




Report Contents