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Americans' Vanishing Fear of Foreign Trade

Americans' Vanishing Fear of Foreign Trade

Story Highlights

  • Nearly four in five Americans now see trade as mainly an opportunity
  • Fewer than one in five consider trade an economic threat, an all-time low
  • New U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement on trade is favored by both parties

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- More Americans than Gallup has seen in a quarter century view foreign trade positively, with 79% calling it "an opportunity for economic growth through increased U.S. exports." Fewer than one in five (18%) -- down by about half from 34% in 2016, and the lowest Gallup has recorded -- now perceive trade as mainly a "threat to the economy from foreign imports." A high of 52% of Americans held this skeptical view of trade during the last recession.

Line graph, 1992 to 2020, showing trend in views of foreign trade as an opportunity for growth or a threat to the economy.

While the percentage of Americans viewing trade as a threat has slipped three percentage points in the past year, the share viewing it positively has risen five points to 79%.

The latest results are from Gallup's 2020 World Affairs survey, conducted Feb. 3-16. Gallup has asked this question periodically since 1992, including annually since 2011.

Americans' perceptions of whether trade is more of a benefit or a hindrance have closely tracked the U.S. economy, particularly since the 2007-2009 recession. As that recession got underway, Americans were highly likely to view trade as a threat because of imports. But as the economy improved and unemployment declined to historical lows, so too have perceptions of trade as an economic threat.

Party Groups Largely Agree on Trade

Trade enjoys strong bipartisan support in the U.S. today, with roughly eight in 10 Democrats (82%) and Republicans (78%), in addition to 76% of independents, seeing it as more of an opportunity for growth than a threat from imports.

Today's views by party reflect marked increases in both Democrats' and Republicans' positive outlook on trade since their low points in 2008 and 2012, respectively.

Line graph, 1992-2020. Percentages of Republicans and Democrats who consider trade an opportunity for economic growth.

NAFTA's Replacement Enjoys Broad Support

The new poll was conducted shortly after President Donald Trump signed the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) -- his long-promised replacement for the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) -- after bipartisan approval of the bill in both houses of Congress over the prior month. Trump and his North American counterparts signed the initial agreement over a year ago, but its implementation has been held up as congressional Democrats negotiated with the Trump administration over environmental and labor provisions.

Americans' views of the USMCA closely mirror their opinions of trade overall. Eight in 10 say the agreement will be good for the U.S., while 13% predict it will be bad.

Americans' Views of U.S.-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement
Overall, do you think the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement will be good for the U.S. or bad for the U.S.?
Good for the U.S. Bad for the U.S. No opinion
% % %
U.S. adults 80 13 7
Republicans 88 6 6
Independents 78 14 8
Democrats 73 20 7
Gallup, Feb. 3-16, 2020

Reflective of the bipartisan nature of the USMCA's passage, the newly minted trade agreement receives high support from all party groups, including 88% of Republicans, 78% of independents and 73% of Democrats.

This reaction is similar to Americans' initial response to NAFTA after that agreement was proposed during Republican George Bush's presidency in 1991. At that time, 72% of U.S. adults thought it would be good for the U.S., including 71% of both Republicans and independents, and 73% of Democrats. It was only in later years that NAFTA became more controversial, as well as more closely associated with the Democrats, possibly in part due to Trump's declaring the agreement a "disaster" during his 2016 campaign.

Public Not Following USMCA News Story Closely

Americans' attention to news about the USMCA has been on the low side for news stories Gallup has measured since 1991. Twelve percent say they have followed it very closely and another 34% somewhat closely, while 28% say not too closely and 26% have not followed it at all. Republicans (56%) are more likely than Democrats (45%) and independents (39%) to have followed it at least somewhat closely.

The 46% of all Americans following news about the USMCA very or somewhat closely falls short of the 60% average attention score for nearly 230 news items in Gallup's trend. Support for the agreement is a bit higher among those following it closely (88%) than among those following it not too closely (79%) or not at all (67%).

Bottom Line

The large majority of Americans now see trade as mainly an opportunity for economic growth through increased exports rather than a threat from imports. Apart from continued low U.S. unemployment, which raises everyone's comfort level with trade, Republicans and Democrats likely have differing reasons to feel positively about what trade means for the country. Republicans may feel confident that trade is in better hands under Trump, while Democrats may feel that supporting trade is supporting the effectiveness of the trade deals put in place or championed by Trump's Democratic predecessors.

View complete question responses and trends.

Learn more about how the Gallup Poll Social Series works.

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