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Labor and the evolving Republican position on free trade

Activists hold a rally to protest the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in front of the White house on February 3, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Activists hold a rally to protest the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) in front of the White house on February 3, 2016, in Washington, DC.
Olivier Douliery/Getty Images

For all their disagreements, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump overlap on one key issue: their opposition to free trade. The candidates have both come out against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and they have expressed concerns about the US’s existing trade deals.

Unifying the candidates is a shared belief that trade endangers US jobs. Clinton promises to "level the global playing field for American workers," while Trump stated that employees are "being crushed" by trade.

Is this focus on working-class America really anything new? While Clinton aligns with Democrats’ recent position, we argue that Trump’s populist appeals signal a fundamental break from Republicans.

Prior research shows that party positions on trade shifted during the 1990s. In spite of Bill Clinton’s support for the North American Free Trade Agreement, Democrats were less willing to support liberalization than they had been in the past. At the same, Republicans adopted free trade as a core component of their platform.

A new study in The Forum examines the determinants of congressional votes on the 11 trade agreements ratified since 2001. Our evidence shows that the main difference between Democrats and Republicans in the House of Representatives is their sensitivity to labor issues. Democrats are heavily influenced by district unemployment and campaign contributions from organized labor, whereas Republicans are unswayed by these factors.

Analyzing roll call data on the 11 most recent trade agreements, Democratic House members from districts with high unemployment supported ratification at much lower rates than did other members. In addition, Democrats received significantly larger contributions from organized labor. And this money matters. Those who receive contributions of more than $100,000 are 35 percent less likely to vote in favor of trade agreement ratification than the average House member.

Clinton’s emphasis on jobs is, therefore, consistent with her party’s recent position. After all, Democrats only voted in favor of ratification 36 percent of the time since 2001, and only when labor was not a pressing concern.

Trump’s opposition to trade is more curious. Republicans supported those same 11 trade agreements with near unanimity. On the Republican side of the aisle, there is no evidence that members are swayed by district unemployment rates. They also face less direct pressure for protection, receiving an average of $20,000 in campaign contributions from labor interests, compared with $120,000 received by Democrats, on average.

Given these trends, Trump’s campaign promises depart significantly from the Republican Party recent support for trade. In fact, Trump’s populist, pro-labor economic platform is bolder than Clinton’s. Trump wants to raise tariffs by as much as 45 percent and to retreat from the US’s trade agreements altogether.

While Trump makes big promises, it would be a mistake to think his positions are ad hoc. His appeals reveal fundamental changes occurring in the Republican base—one in which the voices of working-class interests are becoming louder. Trump is making a concerted effort to reach voters with a growing sense of economic disenfranchisement. The result is a Republican frontrunner standing in direct opposition to his party’s traditional support for liberalization.

This shift among Republicans is likely to have bigger implications moving forward, especially for pending trade agreements like TPP. Clinton’s opposition should be taken in stride; all recent Democratic candidates expressed skepticism toward free trade on the campaign trail.

In 2008, Obama stated his desire to renegotiate NAFTA and to abandon the three agreements he would inherit from Bush. Eight years later, NAFTA remains untouched, and agreements with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea have entered into force. The most likely outcome of a Hillary Clinton presidency is a continuation of pro-trade policies that started under Bill Clinton and NAFTA.

The implications of Trump’s statements are less clear. He stated that he "does not fear a trade war" and has already alienated key US trade partners, most notably China. But his declarations are perhaps less interesting than what he represents—a new, powerful anti-trade segment of the Republican Party. For example, Orrin Hatch (R-UT) said that TPP fell "woefully short" of expectations, and Mitch McConnell (R-KY) implied the vote would suffer lengthy delays.

Splintering among Republicans means that TPP’s survival will require support from both parties. This is where history might be on TPP’s side. In spite of the broad gap between Democrats and Republicans, eight of the past 11 free trade agreements passed through the House with — or because of — support from both sides of the aisle.

CAFTA-DR is perhaps the most telling example. Republicans voted against CAFTA-DR in unusually large numbers (27 members), yet it passed through the House with support from 15 Democrats, who tipped the narrow margin in favor of ratification.

Obama’s ability to secure a similar cross-party coalition will determine TPP’s fate. TPP’s passage is going to require convincing a Republican Party that is increasingly concerned with labor interests and the costs of free trade.

Jeffrey Kucik is an assistant professor of political science in the Colin Powell School at the City College of New York. His research examines the domestic politics of international trade, focusing on the formation and design of international trade law.

Ashley Moraguez is an assistant professor of political science at the University of North Carolina Asheville. She researches American political institutions, particularly bargaining between the legislative and executive branches.