As negotiations on the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) move toward a critical stage, we wondered whether President Donald Trump’s protectionist rhetoric aligns with American public opinion. Would the American public support ripping up the agreement? And how much public support would Canadian negotiators have to either compromise or take a hardline if presented with an ultimatum by the United States? Understanding where public opinion lies can give us a sense of how much political flexibility each government has at the table.

Public opinion polls have found record-breaking levels of support for free trade and NAFTA across Canada and the United States. For example, a 2017 Gallup poll found that an all-time high of 72 percent of Americans believed that trade was a good thing for the US economy, up from 58 percent only a year before. During the early rounds of tense NAFTA renegotiations in September 2017, an annual survey conducted by EKOS found that a record high of 81 percent of Canadians agreed that there should be free trade between Canada, the United States and Mexico. This contrast between public opinion and protectionist rhetoric raises questions about how the public might respond to a breakdown of NAFTA negotiations — or to an outcome perceived to be unfavourable.

Support for free trade appears to be high, but closer analysis reveals that the public generally holds weak preferences and has limited knowledge about trade. One 2016 survey found that 49 percent of Canadians had no opinion on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), compared with the 32 percent of Canadians who supported it. Even with high-profile debates surrounding trade issues in the United States since the 2016 election, recent polls suggest that the American public does not view trade as a pressing policy issue. In a 2018 survey, the Pew Research Center found that global trade was ranked as the lowest-priority issue by Americans when compared with other priorities such as strengthening the economy, improving the educational system and preventing terrorism. In addition, a 2017 survey found that 23 percent of Americans had no opinion on free trade, while 42 percent believed that trade had no impact on their personal financial situation.

While surveys have found record-high levels of support for free trade, attitudes on the two sides of the border differ in interesting ways. Canadians tend to be more supportive of the agreement than their southern neighbours, with only a marginal partisan split in Canadian opinion: 70 percent of NDP supporters view NAFTA positively, compared with 82 percent of Liberals and 83 percent of Conservatives. In contrast, over the past decade a significantly larger partisan divide on NAFTA has emerged within the United States. According to one recent survey, 68 percent of Democrats viewed NAFTA positively, compared with only 30 percent of Republicans.

Another point of difference that is potentially concerning for Canadians: Americans are more likely to believe that terminating NAFTA would have no serious repercussions. According to recent findings from the Angus Reid Institute, while 61 percent of Canadians believe that ending NAFTA would have significant economic consequences for Canada, only 30 percent of Americans believe that their country would be negatively affected.

Despite the often tense and uncertain trade negotiations that have taken place over the past several months, it seems that Canadian confidence in the government has remained stable. Trend data from Nanos Research found that 57 percent of Canadians were confident in the government’s ability to handle NAFTA negotiations in both January 2017 and January 2018 surveys. But Canadian opinion of the US has declined significantly under the current administration. According to recent data from the Chicago Council of Global Affairs, Canadian approval of US leadership fell a dramatic 40 points, from 60 percent to 20 percent, from 2016 to 2017. In a recent collaboration with the Mowat Centre, we found that nearly 50 percent of Ontarians believe that the United States benefits more from the US-Canada trade relationship, and that only 26 percent believe that relations with the United States should become closer.

It is more challenging to gauge how the American public would react if President Trump withdrew from NAFTA. On the one hand, Americans continue to be indifferent toward trade policy and more skeptical of the benefits of NAFTA. On the other hand, Americans view the trade relationship with Canada in positive terms and are increasingly critical of the President’s trade policy agenda. Despite his frequent allegations that Canada engages in unfair trade practices, a recent poll found that 79 percent of Americans view Canada as a fair trading partner. Indeed, a Pew poll found that only 20 percent of Americans believe that Canadians benefit the most from bilateral trade under NAFTA, while 57 percent believe that Canada and the United States benefit equally. In the wake of recent actions on steel and aluminum tariffs, 54 percent of American voters disapproved of President Trump’s trade policies, while 64 percent of Americans disagreed with his claim that a trade war would be good for the United States.

While recent public opinion polls have found widespread support for free trade, these preferences are volatile and easily influenced by partisan affiliation. With continued public support for the Canadian government’s NAFTA negotiation efforts and worsening attitudes toward Trump and the United States, Canadians are unlikely to support major concessions simply to maintain the agreement — which leaves the government with considerable flexibility.

In contrast, support for NAFTA in the United States is comparatively weaker. Positive opinions of the US-Canada trade relationship and recent criticisms of the President’s tariff policies suggest that he may encounter some opposition to tearing up the agreement, at least from Democrats — Republican opinion seems to align more closely with the President’s pronouncements. Trump might well think that he has all the room to manoeuvre needed for his America First trade policy, high public support for trade notwithstanding.

Photo: NEW YORK – Police officers patrol as people gather to watch the fireworks display over the East River during Fourth of July celebrations, July 4, 2017. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

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Robert Wolfe
Robert Wolfe is professor emeritus, School of Policy Studies, Queen’s University; a research fellow of IRPP; and a member of the Global Affairs Canada Trade Advisory Council.
Giancarlo Acquaviva
Giancarlo Acquaviva is pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at Queen’s University and holds a BA in international relations from Western University.

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