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Political criticism erodes free trade support: Survey

Months of withering political rhetoric in the presidential campaign has eroded American support for free trade but not for immigration.

The CNBC All-America Economic Survey, conducted March 21-23, finds that just 27 percent of the public agree that free trade "has helped the U.S.," compared with 43 percent who say it has hurt. Support for free trade declined 10 points since the same question was asked in an April 2015 poll by NBC News/Wall Street Journal.

"We're in a clear era where people are more likely to think that trade hurts and a lot of that probably can be attributed to the likes of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders,'' said Jay Campbell of Hart Research Associates. The poll of 802 Americans, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percent, was conducted jointly by Hart from the Democratic side and Public Opinion Strategies from the Republican side.

Immigration reform activists holds signs
Alex Wong | Getty Images
Immigration reform activists holds signs

The CNBC poll shows support for free trade has eroded across party lines but slipped most sharply among independents and Republicans. According to the survey, the GOP has gone from a party about evenly split on free trade to one where 53 percent believe it hurts and only 23 percent say it helps.


Independents look more like Republicans on the trade issue than Democrats. But Democrats have also changed from a party that largely supported free trade to one that is now evenly split.

Respondents gave Hillary Clinton the advantage over Donald Trump on the trade issue by a 32 percent to 25 percent margin. Clinton has stronger Democratic support than Trump has Republican support. But Clinton also has the backing of 11 percent of Republicans on trade.


Every income group has negative views on trade, but lower-income Americans are far more negative than the wealthy. Those with blue-collar jobs are extremely negative. The South and Midwest regions register the most trade opposition, followed by the Northeast. The West, which relies heavily on trade with Asia, is evenly split.

Yet, when asked whether some of America's biggest trading partners represent economic threats or opportunities, only China is viewed negatively in the poll. Forty-nine percent of the public see it as a threat, compared to 29 percent who view it as an opportunity. China, which has the biggest trade deficit of any country, has been a particular target of Trump, who has argued that the U.S. has struck unfair trade deals with Beijing.

Mexico fares better in the poll, with 38 percent of Americans seeing trade with the country as an opportunity and 27 percent seeing it as a threat. Views on Germany are more positive, with 47 percent seeing it as an opportunity even though Germany has a bigger trade deficit with the U.S. than Mexico.

While trade is viewed negatively, support for immigration remains intact. Fifty-three percent of the public agrees with the statement that "immigrants today strengthen our country because of their hard work and talents." Just 31 percent sided with the view that "immigrants today are a burden on our country because they take our jobs, housing and health care." Support for immigrants is unchanged from when Pew Research Center asked the same question in August 2015. Negative views dropped 7 points in the CNBC poll compared with Pew.

"I think that the results show a public that's not necessarily moved by some of the more harsh rhetoric around the immigration issue," said Micah Roberts of Public Opinion Strategies. "There's definitely a political division there. That's been apparent for a long time about immigration."

The survey shows Republicans more likely to think immigrants hurt the country by a 49 percent to 36 percent margin. Democrats overwhelmingly see immigrants helping the nation by a 69 percent to 20 percent margin. On this issue, as opposed to trade, independent views are more closely aligned with Democrats.

When asked which candidate has the best policy for immigration, Americans split 27 percent for Clinton and 26 percent for Trump.