May 10, 2018

Americans are generally positive about free trade agreements, more critical of tariff increases

A worker at the Friedrich Wilhelms-Hutte steelworks in Mulheim, Germany. Recent proposals to increase U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports have raised concern among business interests and foreign leaders. (Markus Matzel/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)
A worker at the Friedrich Wilhelms-Hutte steelworks in Mulheim, Germany. Recent proposals to increase U.S. tariffs on steel and aluminum imports have raised concern among business interests and foreign leaders. (Markus Matzel/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images)

Americans’ views of free trade agreements, which turned more negative during the 2016 presidential campaign, are now about as positive as they were prior to the campaign. And when asked about proposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, more say they would be bad for the country than say they would be good.

A majority of U.S. adults (56%) say free trade agreements have been a “good thing” for the country as a whole, while 30% say they have been a “bad thing.” That is the highest share expressing positive views of free trade agreements in three years, according to a new survey by Pew Research Center.

Most of the change has come among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, who now are evenly divided in their views of free trade agreements’ impact on the country. While 46% say these agreements have been a bad thing for the country, nearly as many (43%) say they have been a good thing. In the final weeks of the presidential campaign in October 2016, 63% of Republicans viewed free trade agreements negatively, while just 29% said they were a good thing.

By contrast, Democratic views of free trade agreements remain overwhelmingly positive: Two-thirds (67%) say free trade agreements have been good for the U.S, while just 19% say they have been bad. In October 2016, a smaller majority of Democrats (59%) viewed trade agreements positively.

The partisan divide is even more pronounced in views about raising tariffs.

Republicans generally have a positive view of potential increases in tariffs on steel and aluminum imports. About six-in-ten (58%) say they would be good for the country, while just 26% say such tariff increases would be bad for the country. Democratic opinion is the opposite: Only 22% of Democrats think increasing steel and aluminum tariffs would be good for the U.S., while 63% say they would be bad for the country.

While the Trump administration’s proposals to increase tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from other countries have drawn significant attention among business interests and foreign leaders, a substantial share of the U.S. public has heard little or nothing about these proposals.

Just 29% of the public says it has heard “a lot” about proposals to raise tariffs on steel and aluminum, and 41% say they have heard “a little.” Roughly three-in-ten (29%) say they have heard “nothing at all” about these proposals.

The partisan gap in views of tariffs is substantially wider among those who have heard “a lot” about the proposals than those who have not: Two-thirds (67%) of Republicans who have heard a lot about the proposed tariffs say they will be a good thing for the country, compared with just 8% of Democrats who have heard a lot about them.

Note: Read the full report, methodology and topline results here.

Topics: Globalization and Trade, Political Issue Priorities

  1. Photo of Bradley Jones

    is a research associate focusing on U.S. politics and policy at Pew Research Center.