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Presidential Candidates Back Away From Supporting Free Trade


Trade has become a big issue in this presidential campaign. Bernie Sanders pushed it before his big win in Michigan, and exit polls suggest that's something that resonated with voters there. But a majority of Republicans in that race also said they believe trade cost American jobs. That might sound counterintuitive but maybe not in this year of economic populism. To explain more about how the issue is crossing party lines, NPR political reporter Danielle Kurtzleben is here. Hey, Danielle.


SHAPIRO: Give us the picture that the polls reveal on this issue.

KURTZLEBEN: Right, so like you said in Michigan, which is, of course, sort of the heartland of American manufacturing where Bernie Sanders was really hitting Hillary Clinton on trade, Republicans and Democrats looked remarkably similar. In roughly similar numbers on Tuesday, they told pollsters we think trade costs American jobs. And likewise, similar amounts said we think trade creates jobs.

SHAPIRO: What were the numbers?

KURTZLEBEN: Fifty-seven percent of Democrats said that trade takes away jobs compared to 55 percent of Republicans. So that's more or less the same thing. In Mississippi, which also voted on Tuesday, Republicans were actually a bit more likely to say trade is bad. They said 58 percent said it takes jobs away compared to 41 percent of Democrats.

SHAPIRO: Interesting - big differences between the Rust Belt and the Deep South.

KURTZLEBEN: Oh, absolutely. But, I mean, when you look nationwide at some broader polls that have been done, Pew Research Center did a big poll on this, actually, nationally in May 2015. Both parties on balance in that poll were more likely to say that free trade agreements are a good thing than a bad thing, although Democrats were slightly more likely to say so. But still, there really wasn't a huge difference between the two parties.

SHAPIRO: When you do find divides on this issue, what accounts for who feels which way?

KURTZLEBEN: Well, there are a couple of divides in this. Once again, I'm looking at that Pew poll. One of them appears to be class. The lower income people were, the more likely they were to say that trade personally was worse for their finances. Higher income people were more likely to say it was better for their finances. The other big divide is age. Younger people really seemed far more OK with freer trade than older people. And then, of course, you know, you have these divides within parties. And we're seeing this play out on the political stage right now. You have President Obama pushing TPP, and he has been having a tough time getting a lot of Democrats on his side whereas he has quite a few Republicans voting for it.

SHAPIRO: TTP, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, of course. You're describing similar feelings between Republicans and Democrats. But in the past, this has really been a divisive issue between the parties, hasn't it?

KURTZLEBEN: Yes, it has, absolutely. I mean, think about who lines up on either side of this. You have the Chamber of Commerce, which is, of course, a big backer of Republicans, which also pushes for trade deals. On the left, you have labor unions, which, of course, are big backers of Democrats who are very opposed to a lot of these trade deals saying that they cost jobs. So that's where people have lined up in the past. But right now, you have some strange bedfellows. You have Obama with Paul Ryan supporting his trade deal. On the left, you have Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders against Obama's trade deal.

SHAPIRO: Ultimately, we're talking about opinion for and against, but what about the data? Is trade ultimately actually good for American jobs or bad for American jobs?

KURTZLEBEN: I laugh because it's a hard, hard question to answer. Now, I mean, the bottom line that anybody should know when they're hearing politicians talk about this is that when anybody says a trade deal is all good or all bad, you should just be skeptical of it because the truth is trade deals come with mixes of positives and negatives. Now, what I did find was a broad survey of economists that's done in 2012 who overwhelmingly agreed that freer trade on balance is good. They also agreed that NAFTA, for example, on balance was good for Americans. But they all offered caveats. A lot of them said, you know, look, the keyword here is on balance. Does it hurt some people? Yes, it hurts some people. And a lot of the benefits take years to show up. And lately, you have some economists questioning just how good freeing up trade with China was. Maybe it did hurt American workers.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Danielle Kurtzleben, thanks.

KURTZLEBEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.
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