North American Free Trade Agreement talks begin Aug. 16. (Reuters)

As U.S. trade officials gear up this week to begin renegotiating NAFTA, the trade pact with Canada and Mexico, what do voters really think about trade agreements?

Donald Trump is a protectionist president. On his first day in office, Trump withdrew the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership. He talks about breaking or renegotiating existing trade agreements and levying increased tariffs on the United States’ main trading partnersCanada, China and Mexico — and about a broader border-adjustment tax.

Conventional wisdom suggests that voters support trade protection when they think it is in their economic interest. Many news outlets have provided helpful lists of which U.S. jobs would be helped or hurt by limits on imports.

But this conventional wisdom misses a key fact: Most Americans — over 70 percent in my surveys — either say that trade doesn’t affect their employment or that they don’t know whether it does.


An assembly line worker builds a 2015 Chrysler 200 at the Fiat Chrysler Sterling Heights Assembly Plant in Sterling Heights, Mich., on March 14, 2014. (Paul Sancya/AP)

In my new book, “American Opinion on Trade,” I found that one influence on support for protectionism is a factor that others have found influenced the 2016 election broadly: race.

Many Americans support trade protection because of a pervasive belief that trade harms others in the country. More than 60 percent of respondents in my surveys say that trade hurts employment for other Americans. The whiteness of those “others” who might benefit from trade protection matters for white Americans’ support of more restrictive trade policy.

What trade messages do U.S. voters see?

To see why race matters for attitudes about trade protection, first consider what messages Americans get about trade policy.

Studies from other policy areas find that how the beneficiaries of policy are depicted in mass media and political campaigns can strongly influence support for policies that aid others. For example, Martin Gilens and Paul Kellstedt found that the disproportionate political and media depiction of welfare beneficiaries as minorities diminished white American support for welfare.

I examined all 531 trade-related congressional, gubernatorial and presidential campaign advertisements run­ning in the country’s largest media markets between 2000 and 2012 — these were ads identified as having a trade theme by the University of Wisconsin Advertising Project (2000 to 2008) and by the Public Citizen organization (2012). Across this period, trade-related ads were relatively rare and overwhelmingly pro-protection.

In these ads, I found that the face of trade is white, working-class and male. In fact, 60 percent of the time, there were no minority faces. On average, one minority worker for every nine white workers was depicted as a beneficiary of trade policy.

While many depictions of the American populace skew white and male (much like this year’s TV shows), this portrayal is unusual for a redistributive policy — which can take many forms but in general transfer an economic benefit (wealth, income or other resources) from one group to another, often via a tax.

In the case of trade protection (whether by tariffs, quotas or regulations), consumers pay higher prices for goods — thus transferring economic benefits to import-competing firms and their employees, in much the way that taxpayers pay higher taxes to transfer economic benefits to welfare recipients. Yet racial depictions of beneficiaries of the two policies stand in stark contrast.

Here’s how I did my research

Does the depiction of white beneficiaries from trade protection actually matter? To find out, in May 2014, I conducted a survey experiment on a sample of 850 U.S. respondents, and randomly assigned each participant to read one of three subtly different versions of a brief newspaper-style article, entitled “Data Shows Struggling Manufacturers, Costly Imports and Gloomier Consumers.” I merged parts of real trade policy news articles to create the three versions of the same message: Foreign trade was hurting U.S. manufacturing.

One group read a short version of the news story that provided no individual depiction of affected workers. The story was illustrated with a picture of a factory floor captioned with “Jobs in the U.S. manufacturing sector have declined as imports have doubled.”

The two other groups read a longer version that began with the same text but also included a brief description of a recently laid-off worker and his difficulties making ends meet:

[Name] worked for Delphi auto parts until being laid-off last month. His union job once earned him $50,000 a year, enough to support his family comfortably and send his oldest daughter to college. “At my age I don’t know if I will be able to find a different job and I don’t have the savings some do. I just don’t know what I am going to do now,” said [Name].

In the “Black” beneficiary version, the laid-off worker was named “Cedric Washington” and the accompanying picture showed two unnamed, middle-aged black men at an employment fair. In the “White” beneficiary version, the laid-off worked was named “Randy Snyder” and the accompanying picture was of two unnamed, middle-aged white men at an employment fair. I then asked all respondents whether they supported, opposed or had no opinion concerning a policy of increased trade protection.

And here’s how these differences affected support for trade protection

Changing the depiction of the beneficiary of trade protection diminished whites’ support of trade protection. White participants who read the “Black” beneficiary version of the news story demonstrated higher opposition to increased trade protection than those who read the “White” beneficiary version of the news story (36 percent to 29 percent). Similarly, support for increased trade protection was lower (41 percent to 45 percent). The combined effect totals an 11 percentage point swing in support — although nothing else changed in the article and the respondents were randomly assigned the article version.

Why this finding matters

The finding that race matters for policies such as trade protection may seem unsurprising, given pervasive racial biases. But it helps to explain individuals’ contrasting support for trade protection and welfare. Both policies are redistributive in nature, so one might expect individuals’ preferences for welfare and protectionist policies to be in sync.

Although some might wonder whether the 2014 time frame — late in President Obama’s second term — made race more salient, similar survey experiments have demonstrated that race has shaped policy opinions in other domains over decades. It will be interesting to trace over time the effect of race on trade preferences that I detected.

It’s who people think benefits from trade protection that matters

White men wearing hard hats star in most trade-related campaign ads. Furthermore, the 2016 election cycle provided a spate of articles about the economic concerns of the white working class with depictions that double down on the whiteness of trade protection beneficiaries.

Yet at the end of the day, their numbers alone don’t explain the support for trade protection. Donald Trump’s protectionist rhetoric may have appealed to more than just Americans who are directly harmed by free trade. Instead, some Americans who traditionally dislike redistributive policies may see trade protection as acceptable in part because of the beneficiaries depicted.

Alexandra Guisinger is an assistant professor of political science at Temple University. Her research focuses on domestic and international reactions to countries’ trade, capital and exchange rate policies. Follow her on Twitter @A_Guisinger