Americans Are Shrugging Over Trump’s Big New Trade Deal

But Republicans are far less skeptical of trade pacts than they were before his presidency.
President Donald Trump is counting on the new USMCA trade agreement to provide a major political victory, but Americans are g
President Donald Trump is counting on the new USMCA trade agreement to provide a major political victory, but Americans are greeting it with a tolerant shrug, according to a new HuffPost/YouGov poll.

The U.S. Senate is set to pass a new trade deal orchestrated by President Donald Trump between the United States, Mexico and Canada this week, but it might not have a major political impact.

The USMCA deal, which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement, has earned the backing of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest group of labor unions and traditionally an opponent of trade agreements.

That’s scrambled the politics surrounding the deal, leading to a split among Democratic presidential primary contenders and hope among vulnerable congressional incumbents in both parties that the deal could boost their political fortunes.

But Americans’ opinions of the USMCA trade deal are the survey version of a tolerant shrug, a new HuffPost/YouGov survey finds: 44% favor it, 11% oppose it and 44% are unsure. Fewer than a quarter report holding a strong opinion on it. 

Much of the public is barely aware of the deal or of which politicians have backed it. Just 19% say they’ve heard a lot about the agreement, with about a third saying they haven’t heard about it at all. 

Only 42% of Americans are aware that Trump backs the deal, with even fewer aware of the positions taken by some of his Democratic presidential rivals. Just 15% and 13%, respectively, know that former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) also support the agreement, and just 23% know that Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) opposes it. 

Americans are also about evenly split on which party they trust more to handle trade issues, with partisans overwhelmingly favoring their own party and independents mostly unsure.

Overall, 21% of registered voters say that trade issues will be very important to their vote for president this year (by contrast, following the airstrike that killed Iranian military commander Qassem Soleimani, about half said the same of foreign policy). 

Americans say, 43% to 20%, that trade agreements between the U.S. and other countries have been a good thing for the U.S., with 37% not sure. Opinions on trade aren’t marked by the vast partisan gulf that characterizes many other issues: Republicans are only 7 percentage points likelier than Democrats to say trade agreements are generally a good thing.

But those results reflect a significant underlying change since Trump’s ascent to the presidency. In the summer of 2016, Democrats’ opinions of trade agreements were relatively positive, while Republicans’ were firmly underwater.  In a December 2018 HuffPost/YouGov poll, both parties were more supportive ― part of a larger apparent trend away from isolationist thinking ― but the difference was especially stark within the GOP. This year’s survey is the first since at least 2016 to find stronger support for free trade among Republicans than Democrats.

That change may reflect Republicans’ confidence in Trump’s ability to craft more advantageous trade deals than previously existed.

Both the variability and the high level of “not sure” responses also suggest, however, that many people don’t have strongly held opinions on trade ― and that the topic itself hasn’t become consistently polarized. 

The deal had an unorthodox crew of backers: Trump, who finished negotiating the agreement with Mexico and Canada more than year ago, wants to fulfill a campaign promise to craft better trade deals for the country; moderate House Democrats wanted to show their constituents they could work with Trump on important issues even while impeaching him; and the AFL-CIO, which argues the deal is an improvement on NAFTA for American workers.  

The deal sailed through the House last month on a 385-41 vote after negotiations between House Democrats and Trump resulted in a revised version of the deal that won the AFL-CIO’s backing. (The Senate is expected to vote on Friday, while Mexico has already approved the deal and the Canadian parliament’s House of Commons is expected to vote on it soon.)

Environmental groups have largely lined up in opposition to the deal, arguing it does little to stop climate change. Some unions, most prominently the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers, have broken with the AFL-CIO to oppose the deal.

During Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate, Sanders cited the opposition of those groups to explain why he remained opposed to the agreement. Warren backed it, arguing it was a marginal improvement for workers that could be revised later. That created a relatively rare policy split between the two leading progressives in the presidential race.

“We can do much better than a Trump-led trade deal,” Sanders said during the debate.

But the polling provides little evidence Sanders’s stance will be a significant political winner: 42% of Democrats back the deal, while 15% oppose it. But roughly two-thirds of Democrats said they were unsure of Warren’s and Sanders’s stances on the deal ― though the poll was conducted before the debate brought more attention to the split. Just 17% of Democrats said trade issues would be “very important” to their presidential vote this year.

Use the widget below to further explore the results of the HuffPost/YouGov survey, using the menu at the top to select survey questions and the buttons at the bottom to filter the data by subgroups:

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Jan. 9-11 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov’s opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

HuffPost has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov’s nationally representative opinion polling. More details on the polls’ methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some but not all potential survey errors. YouGov’s reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.