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NJ Daily / CONGRESS

In Both Parties, a Schism on Trade

Export divide: Worker builds Chevy Volt in Michigan.(AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

photo of Matthew Cooper
October 17, 2011

In the wake of congressional passage of three long-delayed free-trade deals, voters are divided over those agreements, and they are also at odds over a measure designed to change China’s currency policies, according to a new survey.

The voters’ conflicting views are echoed among the very highest officeholders. For instance the Obama administration was joined by congressional Republican leaders in supporting the trade deals with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, while voters opposed them, 41 percent to 38 percent, with a combined 21 percent saying they did not know or refusing to answer. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., opposed all three and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., opposed the Colombia deal.

Similarly, the administration has been frosty toward the proposal being offered in Congress to place tariffs on Chinese goods if Beijing is found to be manipulating its currency to make its goods cheaper and more attractive to American consumers. Yet, 44 percent of voters backed the sanctions bill, 41 percent opposed it, and 15 percent said they didn’t know or refused to answer. In Congress, Pelosi has called the bill more important than the trade agreements, while House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has expressed doubt about the wisdom of considering the legislation.

 

At a time of economic pain and uncertainty, voters are divided over these two very different approaches to trade. Their responses are divided along lines of class, education, and party affiliation, suggesting that both parties have large numbers of voters who are supportive of free trade as well as of those who are wary of it. Indeed, the survey underscores how neither party’s voters can be blithely dismissed as pro- or anti-trade. Both parties have large constituencies that are skeptical of trade deals and large constituencies that are not. Any member of Congress attempting to navigate these roiling waters will find it tricky to please his or her own party.

The United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll is conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates International, which surveyed 1,007 adults by landline and cell phone on Oct. 13-16. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points.

Consider those trade deals. When asked if they supported or opposed the congressionally approved agreements with South Korea, Colombia, and Panama, voters were just about evenly divided, with 38 percent supporting the accords and 41 percent opposing them. A full 21 percent of voters didn’t know enough to answer or refused to say.

While the overall number of voters was divided fairly evenly, the differences among subgroups were stark. Men favored the agreements 46 percent to 38 percent; women opposed them 44 percent to 30 percent. Although Republicans are sometimes thought of as being more pro-trade, 41 percent of GOP rank-and-file voters polled opposed the agreements. The number was slightly higher for Democrats: 45 percent of them opposed the treaties. When it comes to education, 44 percent of college graduates supported the agreements and 31 percent opposed them. Among those with some college or less education, 45 percent opposed the trade pacts and 35 percent supported them—perhaps reflecting views on the loss of manufacturing jobs to foreign competition.

Taking race into account, the cleavages grow more dramatic. White male college graduates favored the agreements by a resounding 59 percent. Among white men who have some or no college education, that number drops almost by half to 30 percent. Within the Republican subgroup, voters without a college education were against the trade deals by almost 2-1: 48 percent opposed the accords while 26 percent supported them. As more and more white blue-collar voters migrate to the GOP, this is likely to be a source of tension between the party’s pro-agreement leaders in Congress and its ranks. Democrats see some of the same friction. Among suburban Democratic voters who have a college degree or more of education, 49 percent support the accords and 30 percent oppose them.

Voters were similarly divided about a proposed measure that would slap tariffs on Chinese goods if Beijing is found to be manipulating its currency. Overall, voters were evenly divided on the measure, with 44 percent supporting it and 41 percent opposing it. College graduates supported the sanctions measure, 57 percent to 30 percent. When party affiliation was factored in among college grads, Republicans were the most supportive of the measure: 62 percent of them backed the bill and only 24 percent opposed it despite the widespread opposition to higher taxes in the Republican Party. Among Democrats and independents, the support for the measure was a bit lower. There was less enthusiasm for the punitive sanctions among voters who were not college-educated, although Republicans once again led the way; 44 percent of GOP voters with no college degree backed the bill, compared with 37 percent for Democrats and 40 percent for independents.

In contrast to the free-trade agreements, passage of the Chinese currency-sanctions proposal is unlikely. But it’s just as unlikely to be the last measure along those lines that Congress considers as it grapples with the nation’s trade deficit with China and Beijing’s growing economic might. As Congress moves forward, the United Technologies/National Journal Congressional Connection Poll shows how leaders will have a hard time bringing their constituencies together unless they can fundamentally change hearts and minds to produce a consensus—and that, too, seems highly unlikely.

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