Last June, I wrote that, although public opinion polls on trade policy were yielding results that are all over the place, one body of evidence was pointing strongly to mounting voter opposition to Washington’s longstanding – and largely bipartisan – globalization strategy: The number of presidential candidates trying to make hay of the issue. Now a new study is supporting some of that hypothesis, – and in the process indicates that pollsters genuinely need to get their trade act together.
The authors are essentially the same Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) team that conducted some of the most influential research on trade’s economic impact of recent years. Its February report found that the damage to American employment and wages resulting from dramatic post-2001 U.S. trade expansion with China has been much greater and longer-lasting than economic theory would have predicted.
This week, these scholars are telling us that damage from import competition has contributed significantly to the popularity of White House hopefuls like Republican front-runner Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Bernie Sanders. Moreover, the impact – which they contend dates to the beginning of the last decade – has been more pronounced among Republicans.
These conclusions are based on an examination of the district-by-district outcomes of the House of Representatives races in the 2002 and 2010 off-year elections. As the authors put it:
“[W]e find strong evidence that congressional districts exposed to larger increases in import competition disproportionately removed moderate representatives from office in the 2000s. Trade-exposed districts initially in Republican hands become substantially more likely to elect a conservative Republican, while trade-exposed districts initially in Democratic hands become more likely to elect either a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican.”
If they’re confirmed by follow-on research, these MIT results will matter because they’d represent the first robust findings that trade issues have exerted major effects on national politics. It’s true that trade issues have become much more controversial nation-wide since a raucous debate broke out in the early 1990s over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). It’s also true that, over that last quarter century, trade-related job loss in particular has impacted a handful of House and Senate races in unusually hard hit districts or states.
But it’s true as well that to date there’s been no reason to believe that opposition to or skepticism about trade deals and trade policies has significantly influenced the make up of the House or Senate, the presidential choices of the two major parties, or the final White House verdicts in November.
In fact, when’s the last time you can remember a Democratic or Republican presidential nominee running hard and consistently against American trade policies? Or even any of the leading contenders for these nominations? And when it comes to Congress, the trade critics’ important legislative priorities have carried the day lately only twice – when Bill Clinton’s requests for fast track trade negotiating authority were rejected in 1997 and 1998, and when the authority itself was allowed to expire in 2007.
But although politicians as a group haven’t been acting as if trade issues mattered to their constituents, the new MIT study also suggests that they may not have had the chance to examine much useful, accurate evidence. One of the authors told a New York Times reporter that “In retrospect, whether it’s Trump or Sanders, we should have seen in it coming. ”
It’s likely that the polls have obscured their vision for three main reasons. First, the exit polls conducted after most elections simply haven’t asked voters about trade issues. Ditto for many polls about the state of the economy at any time. Second, polls that have focused on trade rarely gauge salience – i.e., how high respondents rank the issue on their list of major concerns. Third, as I’ve noted repeatedly, the trade questions that are posed by pollsters are often completely worthless. Sometimes the wording is flat-out biased, stacking the deck in favor of “pro-trade” responses. Indeed, it’s all too typical for surveys to present sharp black and white, yes or no choices that have little if anything to do with the real choices faced by policymakers or the public at any given time.
No realistic person expects polling to be an exact science. But the new MIT study combined with the way both students and practitioners of politics have been blindsided by the Trump and Sanders campaigns shows how urgently pollsters need to change their losing trade game. At this stage, even minimal confidence would be welcome.
Meanwhile, the study and the Trump-Sanders successes should be signaling to trade critics that their efforts have been bolstering the cause of trade realism, despite the imposing money and political power arrayed against them. Their next challenge is capitalizing on today’s momentum and turning it into enduring policy change.