Several analysts point to the high job approval ratings that self-described Republicans give to President Trump — 87 percent in a Sept. 17-23 Gallup poll — and conclude that as far as Republican voters go, “Trump owns the GOP.” Even former House speaker John A. Boehner surmised, “There is no Republican Party. There’s a Trump party. The Republican Party is kind of taking a nap somewhere.”
Has the Republican Party electorate truly converted to Trump’s positions on all issues?
To investigate U.S. public views on trade and foreign policy, my team examined the results of the 2018 Chicago Council Survey, just released publicly today. The survey was conducted from July 21 to 31 by GfK Custom Research among a probability-based representative national sample of 2,046 adults randomly selected from their large-scale nationwide panel (KnowledgePanel). The study sample was weighted by geo-demographic benchmarks from the Current Population Survey.
In total, 27 percent of the sample describe themselves as Republicans. To distinguish between Republicans who make up Trump’s base versus other Republicans, we divided them into two groups. “Trump Republicans” are those with a very favorable view of Donald Trump, making up a slight majority — 55 percent — of all Republicans and 15 percent of the overall public. “Non-Trump Republicans” have only a somewhat favorable or unfavorable view of the president; they make up 44 percent of Republicans and 12 percent of the overall public.
In doing so, we found some clear differences between these groups on key issues.
Trade: NAFTA, CPA-TPP, China
Let’s start with trade agreements. Similarly sized majorities of both Trump- and non-Trump Republicans say that trade is good for the U.S. economy. But Republicans overall are more likely to say that NAFTA is mostly bad (53 percent) than mostly good (43 percent) for the U.S. economy. But 61 percent of non-Trump Republicans think NAFTA is good, and only 34 percent think it’s bad. By contrast, Trump Republicans’ views are almost the reverse: 68 percent think it’s bad, and only 30 percent say it’s good. This survey was fielded before the United States, Canada and Mexico reached an agreement. Republican opinions may have changed if they believe Trump has improved upon the original agreement in an “America First” way.
Similarly, Republicans as a whole tend to oppose the United States participating in the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership — the trade deal formed by 11 Pacific nations after the United States withdrew from the original TPP — with 49 percent opposed and 45 percent in favor. But that breaks down by faction. As with NAFTA, a slight majority — 54 percent — of non-Trump Republicans favor U.S. participation in CPTPP while 39 percent oppose it. By contrast, 57 percent of Trump Republicans oppose it, and only 37 percent support it.
A few Republican congressional leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, have criticized the administration’s trade war with China, but most Republican leaders on Capitol Hill seem to have let it slide. As John Seungmin Kuk, Deborah Seligsohn and Jlakun Jack Zhang argue in a recent Monkey Cage piece, this lack of action is surprising, since China appears to be targeting key Republican-held districts with its retaliatory tariffs.
But many Republican voters are worried, particularly non-Trump Republicans. Three in four non-Trump Republicans, or 76 percent, are concerned about how a U.S.-China trade war would affect the local economy, compared with only 4 in 10, or 43 percent, of Trump Republicans. That makes 56 percent of all Republicans concerned about a trade war.
Withdrawal from international agreements
Aside from trade, Trump has withdrawn the United States from both the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate accord, much to the dismay of allies and many in the United States — even from some within the Trump administration. Despite the official withdrawal, the results show that a slight majority, or 53 percent, of Republicans now support the Iran nuclear deal — driven by the 63 percent of non-Trump Republicans who favor U.S. participation. Even 46 percent of Trump Republicans support the United States staying in an Iran agreement — a high percentage considering that the survey was completed after Trump had already pulled the United States out of the accord. Among the overall Republican sample, just under half, or 46 percent, think the United States should be part of the Paris climate agreement, while 51 percent are opposed. But a solid majority of non-Trump Republicans, or 59 percent, say the United States should participate, while only a third of Trump Republicans agree.
Should the U.S. be admired or feared?
Finally, there are some differences between Trump loyalists and non-Trump Republicans in what they believe the United States should inspire from other countries. In a quote that launched a Woodward book, Donald Trump said that “Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word: Fear.”
Most Republicans disagree. By 55 percent to 43 percent, Republicans overall say that to achieve U.S. foreign policy goals, it is more important to be admired than feared. Fully 71 percent of non-Trump Republicans think it’s important to be admired. But like their president, 58 percent of Trump Republicans agree it is more important to be feared.
In the run-up to the midterm elections, Trump’s party dominance has affected the tenor of primary races, with pundits noting that various Republican candidates have tried to out-Trump each other. Most of those endorsed by Trump won their nominations.
But others are finding intraparty tensions after a summer of controversial policies and statements from Trump and his team. They point to Trump’s siding with President Putin over U.S. intelligence agencies on Russian election interference; the unpopular policy of separating migrant children from their parents; and a lack of appropriate sympathy after the death of Sen. John McCain.
As our survey shows, the Republican Party has similar rifts over trade wars and U.S. withdrawal from key international agreements. Many potential GOP voters do not agree with Trump’s policies on trade and foreign policy, suggesting there could be more to the Republican Party than Donald Trump.
Dina Smeltz is a senior fellow in public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.