The most surprising poll I’ve seen in ages

After Bernie Sanders surprising victory over Clinton in the Michigan Primary, the New York Times reported:

No Democratic presidential candidate had campaigned in Traverse City, Mich., in decades until Senator Bernie Sanders pulled up to the concert hall near the Sears store on Friday. Some 2,000 people mobbed him when he arrived, roaring in approval as he called the country’s trade policies, andHillary Clinton’s support for them, “disastrous.”

“If the people of Michigan want to make a decision about which candidate stood with workers against corporate America and against these disastrous trade agreements, that candidate is Bernie Sanders,” Mr. Sanders said in Traverse City, about 250 miles north of Detroit.

Mr. Sanders pulled off a startling upset in Michigan on Tuesday by traveling to communities far from Detroit and by hammering Mrs. Clinton on an issue that resonated in this still-struggling state: her past support for trade deals that workers here believe robbed them of manufacturing jobs. Almost three-fifths of voters said that trade with other countries was more likely to take away jobs, according to exit polls by Edison Research, and those voters favored Mr. Sanders by a margin of more than 10 points.

The Clinton campaign has been sufficiently worried that Sanders is profiting from his protectionist stances that she’s come out against the Trans Pacific Partnership that she negotiated as Secretary of State. Now that’s not that unusual: Democrats have traditionally been the more sceptical of the two parties when it comes to free trade.

What is weirder is that the Republicans are getting in on the act. Trump is border-line obsessed with the idea the trade deals the US has negotiated with Mexico and China put it at a disadvantage. Ted Cruz seems to be following his lead.

Given this upsurge in the political power of anti-trade populism, I’d assumed: a) that the American electorate was generally hostile to free trade and b) had become more hostile of late.

That was until I saw this article by Matthew Yglesias. He looks at the Gallup polling on American attitudes to trade and finds that since 2012, Americans have gone from being more or less evenly split on whether it was a ‘threat’ or an ‘opportunity’  to a clear majority saying the latter.


What has changed is that “over the course of the Obama administration, Democrats and independents have become more enthusiastic about trade than ever before, while Republicans have developed mixed feelings“.*

If I had to speculate what was going on, I might suggest that this represents an economic issue being subsumed into the cultural divide between the party. Increasingly being a Democrat means being cosmopolitan and perhaps that primes them to look favourably on building trade links with foreign countries.


*I slightly disagree with Yglesias’s reading of this. My cursory look at the data suggests that the balance of opinion on trade among Republicans is roughly the same now as it was at the start of Obama’s presidency. The fall off in their support seems to have happened in the Bush years. Nonetheless, the switch in relative positions between the Republicans and the Democrats is clear enough.