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GOP Trade Sentiment: What's Up With It Being Down?

Pat Buchanan
AP
Pat Buchanan

So why has this decline in GOP free trade sentiment occurred? Think back to 1992, with Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot both ran for president as populists from the right. Since then, "there’s been a steady erosion in Republican support for free trade," says former Rep. Vin Weber, now an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

In a December 1999 Wall Street Journal-NBC poll, 37% of Republicans said trade deals had helped the U.S. and 31% said they had hurt, while 26% said they made no difference.

Ross Perot
AP
Ross Perot

The new poll asked a broader but similar question. It posed two statements to voters. The first was, "Foreign trade has been good for the U.S. economy, because demand for U.S. products abroad has resulted in economic growth and jobs for Americans here at home and provided more choices for consumers."

The second was, "Foreign trade has been bad for the U.S. economy, because imports from abroad have reduced demand for American-made goods, cost jobs here at home, and produced potentially unsafe products."

Asked which statement came closer to their own view, 59% of Republicans named the second statement, while 32% pointed to the first. That suggests the impact of safety scandals over Chinese imports have shifted the trade dynamic.

The result is the attitudes of poll respondents I interviewed by phone yesterday. John Pirtle, a 40-year-old Defense Department employee in Grand Rapids, Mich., said he drifted toward the Republican Party in large part because of his opposition to abortion, but doesn’t agree with the free-trade views of leading candidates.

"We’re seeing a lot of jobs farmed out," said Mr. Pirtle, whose father works for General Motors Corp. Rankled by reports of safety problems with Chinese imports, he added, "The stuff we are getting, looking at all the recalls, to be quite honest, it’s junk."

Julie Kowal, 40 years old, who works in a medical lab and is raising five children in Omaha, Neb., said she worries that Midwestern producers face obstacles selling beef and autos abroad. "We give a lot more than we get," she said. "There’s got to be a point where we say, ‘Wait a minute.’ "

That's a huge challenge for free market conservatives on the eve of the 2008 campaign. In my next post this afternoon, I'll explain how they might meet it.

Questions? Comments? Write to politicalcapital@cnbc.com.