President Trump knows a recession would be a major hit to his reelection hopes, and he seems to be aware that his trade war with China could be a contributing factor in a precarious economy.
But just how much will Trump’s escalating trade war with China affect his reelection? Particularly, will it turn off a key constituency of his 2016 election, farmers?
Even though they make up about 1 percent of the U.S. population, because of where they are concentrated, they played an outsize role in getting Trump to the White House. Their support for Trump helped move several states that consistently have gone into the Democratic column over to his. But lately, farmers have been more vocal in criticizing Trump’s trade war, and Democrats see an opening to make the case that Trump isn’t acting in their best interests.
Here are a couple of ways to look at the political harm tariffs could cause Trump.
We know that farmers aren’t happy about the trade war.
Farmers are on the front lines of this tariff battle because China has retaliated by placing tariffs on American soybeans, corn and pork, making these products more expensive for the No. 1 customer (China) of many American farmers and allowing other markets such as Brazil or Canada to get a stronger foothold in the Chinese market.
We also know these farmers mostly live in states key to Trump’s reelection.
Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio: These are all states that Trump needs to win to be reelected. And they’re all states where farmers are hit hard by Chinese tariffs, making this a potential double whammy for Trump. Farmers are some of his core supporters. They tend to live and work in rural areas, are reliably Republican and reliably voted for Trump.
Republican senators have been warning for months that farmers can’t take much more of this.
Sen. Roy Blunt (Mo.) told Politico in May: “They can feel it. The farm community up ‘til now has really supported the president without flinching. But eventually you flinch.”
Now, farmers’ concerns are no longer a murmur. The National Farmers Union issued a statement about Trump’s trade war that sounded as if it could be coming from his political opponents.
Here’s the group’s president, Roger Johnson, on Friday: “It’s no surprise that China is slapping even more tariffs on American products. Every time Trump escalates his trade war, China calls his bluff — and why would we expect any differently this time around? And it’s no surprise that farmers are again the target."
And on Tuesday, the Iowa Corn Growers Association cited tariffs as one reason it’s blaming the government for dropping corn prices. “Agriculture is in one hell of a bad situation right now,” one corn farmer said in a statement.
Trump is aware of all this, but he and his allies haven’t handled it very delicately.
Trump started this by saying that “trade wars are good,” then spent the better part of a year and a half insisting that Americans wouldn’t be harmed by it, despite the fact that the definition of a trade war is for both sides to inflict economic pain on the other.
He did put together a bailout package for farmers after China retaliated with these tariffs last year, but there were reports of “significant abuse” of the money by large corporations, reports The Washington Post’s Laura Reiley. They’re trying again this year with another $16 billion, but even the officials administering it say the government handout isn’t enough to make up for farmers’ losses by tariffs.
“If you go out and survey farmers and ask them for their results, you won’t find any that feel they’ve been made whole by this program,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in July.
Now, one of Trump’s allies in Congress, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), is on TV telling Americans (and, read: farmers) that they should essentially just deal with it. “We’ve just got to accept the pain that comes with standing up to China,” he said Sunday.
But would farmers really split from Trump?
We had a test case for that question in last year’s Senate races. A number of Democrats were running for reelection in states that voted for Trump with large numbers of farmers affected by tariffs. They were hoping their individual brands combined with messaging on those tariffs would help them squeak by to reelection.
In North Dakota, Indiana and Missouri, it wasn’t enough. Voters in these states didn’t quite understand the trade economics and how it was coming down on farmers in their state, said one Democratic strategist working on these races. And there was no evidence then of farmers revolting en masse from Trump.
Earlier this month, CNBC reported on a couple of farmer-specific surveys that showed 79 percent of farmers supporting Trump and 78 percent saying they think the trade war will ultimately help them.
Democrats think tariffs are seeping into public consciousness.
And they say they have Trump’s handling of the trade war to thank. It was national news when he delayed tariffs on Chinese products that many Americans buy such as iPhones and toys until after the bulk of the Christmas shopping season. And it was national news when Trump said at the Group of Seven summit that he had “second thoughts” about everything, including the trade war with China. (Even though the White House later tried to back off that sentiment.)
And it’s really big news that economists are warning that the United States could be in a recession soon.
All of those things add up to a narrative Democrats hope to push in 2020, that Trump’s trade war with China is costing Americans, and especially farmers, money.
“If he doesn’t lose 100 percent of it from the farm belt, then people are kind of crazy because this is not going well for farmers at all,” North Dakota farmer Bob Kuylen told CNN this week, as reported by Newsweek.