Protesters against the TPP display signs as vice presidential candidate Tim Kaine addresses the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Wednesday, July 27, 2016. (Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/The Washington Post)

During the Democratic National Convention, several speakers have been interrupted by shouts opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership, a controversial free trade agreement. That supports the fact that trade has gotten more attention than usual during this year’s campaigns.

But what do Americans actually think about the prospects of rolling back trade agreements, as both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have suggested throughout the election year?

Our polling following the Republican National Convention suggests that relatively few Americans care about the issue. The minority who do, however, are in favor of reducing free trade.

The technical stuff. Our data is collected through Pollfish’s mobile polling system and then modeled and post-stratified to the expected voting population. This is not a traditional probability-based telephone survey, but a non-probability-based mobile survey. This method is much cheaper and faster, allowing a team of researchers on a limited budget to track respondents weekly on a variety of issues. We are confident that modeling and post-stratification, combined with the large number of responses, allow us to successfully gauge public opinion.

Although we have been polling on various issues since January, we added a question about trade in our Friday (July 22) poll after the Republican convention in Cleveland. We asked respondents: “How do you feel about rolling back free-trade agreements?” We provided a seven-point answer (“Likert”) scale: favor very strongly, favor strongly, favor weakly, neither favor nor oppose, oppose weakly, oppose strongly, oppose very strongly.

Most Americans don’t care much about free trade agreements – but those who care are against it.

As you can see in the graph, far more Americans are indifferent about trade than about a wide array of other issues. In our survey, 50 percent of respondents said that they neither favor nor oppose rolling back trade agreements. By comparison, the issue with the second-most “neither” responses was turning Medicare into a voucher system, at 29 percent. On the low end, just 13 percent of respondents were indifferent about abortion.


Distribution of positions on 12 separate issue questions

If we add up those who were either indifferent or said they weakly support or oppose rolling back free trade, fully 67 percent of Americans don’t care very much either way.

We poll on 11 other policy issues. The only one where respondents are even close to that uninterested in the issue is increasing government regulations, where 49 percent of respondents are indifferent or have only weak opposition or support.

That leaves just 33 percent of Americans who feel strongly about trade. Where do they stand? Decidedly against free trade.

Of the group that expressed strong preferences, more than three-quarters (or about 25 percent of all our respondents) support rolling back free-trade agreements. The remaining quarter (or about 8 percent of all our respondents) oppose it.

That definite preference is unusual; we found a similar strong leaning to one side or the other on only four other issues. For instance, among respondents who have a strong opinion about whether to increase taxes on income over $250,000, we found 87 percent in favor. Similarly, among those who have a strong opinion about protecting people from discrimination based on sexual orientation, we found 87 percent in support. And when we look at people who have strong opinions on the issues, 85 percent favor military intervention to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, while 81 percent support abortion in cases of rape and incest.

Those opinions are different based on age and sex

Although people in both parties are opposed to free-trade agreements, opinions differ across demographics. Republicans strongly support rolling back free trade a little more than Democrats, 28 to 26 percent, with just 21 percent of independents taking a strong stance against free trade.

But while only 20 percent of voters under 45 strongly support rolling back free trade, 28 percent of those over 45 do. The gender gap is even bigger: 32 percent of men strongly support rolling back free trade, compared to just 20 percent of women.

Trump’s position seems to serve him well with older men. And given that most voters don’t have strong feelings about the issue, there may be little downside to campaigning on the issue.

Of course, the small group of voters who do strongly support free trade could include valuable donors, as most industry leaders benefit from free trade. And, economists universally believe that if the United States actually does roll back free trade it would probably result in serious economic costs, rather than re-creating the stable blue collar manufacturing jobs of decades past.

But at this point, trade is more prominent in campaign rhetoric than in most voters’ minds.

Tobias Konitzer and Sam Corbett-Davies are PhD candidates at Stanford University in communications and computer science, respectively.

David Rothschild is an economist at Microsoft Research. Find him on Twitter @DavMicRot.

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