April 28, 2009

Support for Free Trade Recovers Despite Recession

Overview

Despite the economic recession, public support for free trade agreements has recovered after declining a year ago. Currently, 44% say that free trade agreements like NAFTA and the policies of the World Trade Organization are good for the country, up from 35% a year ago. Slightly more than a third (35%) say that such agreements and policies are bad for the country, down from 48% in April 2008.

The current balance of opinion is more in line with long-term trends when compared with the April 2008 measure. Last year marked the first time in a measure dating to 1997 that a plurality viewed free trade agreements and policies negatively. The current measure is identical to December 2006 and comparable with opinions in 2005 and 2004. Support for NAFTA and other free trade agreements in policies peaked at 49% in early September 2001; at that time, 29% said they were bad for the country.

Other recent national surveys also have found increases in support for foreign trade over the past year. In a survey conducted April 3-5 by CNN/Opinion Research Corp., 56% said they viewed foreign trade “more as an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports,” while 40% said they viewed foreign trade as “a threat to the economy from foreign imports.” In June 2008, a narrow majority (51%) said that foreign trade represented more of a threat rather than an opportunity for the U.S. economy.

In an April 1-5 survey by CBS News/New York Times, 66% said “that trade with other countries – both buying and selling products” is good for the U.S. economy. Fewer (58%) expressed that view in March 2008.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted March 31-April 21 among 3,013 adults interviewed on cell phones and landlines, finds people with low family incomes and Democrats are much more supportive of free trade agreements than they were a year ago.

Nearly half of Democrats (47%) now say that NAFTA and other free trade agreements, and the policies of the World Trade Organization are a good thing for the United States compared with 30% who view these agreements and policies negatively. In April 2008, only about a third of Democrats (34%) viewed free trade agreements positively while 50% expressed a negative opinion. More independents also express a positive opinion of free trade agreements (up eight points since last year), while opinion among Republicans has remained more stable; currently, 41% of Republicans see free trade agreements as a good thing while 38% view them as a bad thing.

Global Trade a Low Priority

The issue of trade has never rated very high on Pew Research’s annual list of the public’s policy priorities. But in January, amid rising public concern over the economy, 31% said that dealing with global trade should be a top priority for the president and Congress, down from 37% a year earlier. Among 20 issues, dealing with global trade ranked near the bottom; just 30% cited dealing with global warming as a top priority.

Only about a third of Democrats (33%) and independents (32%), and 28% of Republicans viewed dealing with global trade as a top priority for the president and Congress. (For more from this survey, see “Economy, Jobs Trump All Other Priorities in 2009,” Jan. 22, 2009.)

General Support for ‘Free Trade’

The public expresses more support for unspecified free trade agreements with other countries than it does for free trade agreements “like NAFTA and the policies of the World Trade Organization.” While most respondents were asked a question that mentioned these specific agreements and policies, a smaller group was asked their opinion of “free trade agreements between the U.S. and other countries;” 52% say such agreements are a good thing for the United States while 14% say they are a bad thing; 14% offer no opinion.

Republicans are far more supportive of free trade agreements generally (59%) than when NAFTA and the policies of the World Trade Organization are mentioned (41%). More independents also express support for free trade agreements generally than when specific trade measures are mentioned (51% vs. 43%). The difference is smaller among Democrats.