Political Capital with John Harwood

Republican Shocker: Free Trade's Not So Good After All


I've seen a lot of opinion polling, but my jaw dropped when I saw this result fromour special NBC News-Wall Street Journal pollof Republicans in advance of next week's presidential candidate debate sponsored by CNBC, MSNBC and the WSJ. By a nearly two-to-one margin, Republican voters believe free trade is bad for the U.S. economy, a shift in opinion that mirrors Democratic views and suggests trade deals could face high hurdles under a new president.

Six in 10 Republicans in the poll agreed with a statement that free trade has been bad for the U.S. and said they would agree with a Republican candidate who favored tougher regulations to limit foreign imports. That represents a challenge for Republican candidates who generally echo Mr. Bush’s calls for continued trade expansion, and reflects a substantial shift in sentiment from eight years ago.

"It’s a lot harder to sell the free-trade message to Republicans," said Republican pollster Neil Newhouse, who conducts the Journal/NBC poll with Democratic counterpart Peter Hart.

The Next President

Why is this happening? With voters provoked for years by such figures as Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot, "there’s been a steady erosion in Republican support for free trade," former Rep. Vin Weber, now an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, told me yesterday.

One fresh indication of the party's ideological crosswinds: Presidential candidate Ron Paul of Texas, who opposes the Iraq war and calls free-trade deals "a threat to our independence as a nation," announced yesterday that he raised $5 million in third-quarter donations. That nearly matches what one-time front-runner John McCain is expected to report.

Whatever the reason, slipping support among Republicans represents a fresh warning sign for free-market conservatives and American companies such as manufacturers and financial firms that benefit from markets opening abroad. I'll have more on these striking poll findings later this morning.

As I mentioned above CNBC, MSNBC and the WSJ are all sponsoring a debate next Tuesday of the GOP presidential contenders, in Dearborn, Michigan. I'm one of the panelists so make sure you catch the two hour debate starting at 4p EST. That's Tuesday, Oct.9th. We'll have live coverage on CNBC.com and CNBC-TV.

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