President Trump is known for his negative remarks about Mexico — suggesting that the country has a “massive crime problem,” making moot the possibility that he may need to send U.S. troops across the border to fight “bad hombres,” linking Mexican immigrants to rape and much, much more.
But a new poll suggests that Mexicans may be doing the impossible: ignoring Trump’s remarks. And, more surprisingly, it appears that the man behind this public shift may be an outspoken leftist — one who also happens to be Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
The survey data comes from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, which partnered with the Mexican survey firm Buendía & Laredo to compare public opinion in Mexico and the United States about the bilateral relationship in the Trump era. It shows that though things appeared to hit a nadir in 2017, the Mexican public’s views of the United States dramatically improved after López Obrador won the presidential election on July 1.
When asked in August last year, 56 percent of Mexicans said they had a favorable view of the United States. That was a sharp reversal from 2017, when just 30 percent — an all-time low — held a positive view of the United States, and appeared to mark a return to the generally favorable views of the United States held by Mexicans for decades.
The survey also found that Mexicans were less pessimistic about the bilateral relationship than they had been the year before, with only 25 percent saying the ties were deteriorating, compared with 61 percent in 2017. (Buendia & Laredo’s research involved face-to-face interviews with 1,000 adults between Aug. 17 and Aug. 23, 2018; the survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.)
The survey did not ask specifically about Mexicans’ views of Trump himself. One poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in the spring found that just 6 percent of Mexicans had confidence that the U.S. president would do the right thing when it came to global affairs, the lowest number of all nations surveyed. That poll also found that just 32 percent held favorable views of the United States in general.
There is no indication that Trump himself is viewed any more positively now: Just one month before Mexico’s presidential election, the local consulting firm Consulta Mitofsky found that more than 80 percent of the country had a negative view of the U.S. leader. But Mexicans may be putting their views of the American president to one side in assessing U.S. ties — perhaps following López Obrador’s lead.
As his campaign gathered steam last year, López Obrador appeared to be the perfect foil to Trump. After all, López Obrador was an austere leftist and a vocal advocate for migrants’ rights. Trump, on the other hand, was Trump.
But once it became clear that López Obrador would win the election, he shifted his language addressing his future U.S. counterpart. Though he had once called Trump a “neo-fascist” and compared him to Hitler, after his victory, López Obrador wrote him a seven-page letter detailing his domestic agenda and proposing “a new stage in the relationship.” Trump, in return, has called his Mexican counterpart an “absolute gentleman.”
Since entering office in December, the Mexican president has focused mostly on domestic issues and found areas of cooperation with the Trump administration. Having earned a landslide victory, López Obrador is not encumbered by the numerous scandals that dragged down the administration of his predecessor, Enrique Peña Nieto.
Esteban Guzmán Saucedo, survey research director at Buendia & Laredo, suggested that there was a more positive attitude in Mexico in general.
“After the election, Mexicans have been way more positive than in the past,” Guzmán Saucedo wrote in an email. “López Obrador won by an important margin of votes, and his approval rating is very high. Moreover, Trump has talked well about López Obrador, and he has mentioned that he has a better understanding with him and López Obrador than with Peña Nieto.”
“This contributes to the idea that the Mexico-U.S. relations are in a better position now,” he added.
There are some caveats. In particular, the timing of the survey is important to consider. The poll was conducted in August, in the midst of negotiations about trade among Mexico, the United States and Canada. It took place months before a resurgence of Trump administration talk about the need for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico and Trump’s repeated warnings about a “caravan” of Central American migrants.
The Chicago Council-Buendia & Laredo poll found both Mexicans and Americans approving of the existing North American Free Trade Agreement, with 78 percent of Mexicans saying it was good for their economy and 63 percent of Americans saying the same. The trade deal that would replace it, the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement, still needs to be ratified by both U.S. and Mexican legislatures.
Disputes over trade, migration or something else may ultimately derail the U.S.-Mexico relationship once more. Trump himself may be a problem: In general, foreign nations’ views of the United States are closely linked to their perception of its president — countries where President Barack Obama was held in high regard have tended to have less favorable views of the United States under Trump, according to Pew’s data.
So far, there’s little sign that Mexicans have a more positive view of Trump himself.