Earlier this spring, the US Congress faced the possibility of a vote – the first since 2005 – on whether the United States should withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO), a body it helped create.
Leading the effort was Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley, a vocal WTO critic who has called to “abolish” the organization, accusing it of unfairness to U.S. interests and favoritism toward China. Although a procedural issue ultimately scuttled a vote, Hawley’s legislation amplified growing criticism of the WTO, including by the Trump Administration.
But what do ordinary Americans think?
A new poll by TradeVistas, conducted by Lincoln Park Strategies, finds that while a plurality of Americans support leaving the WTO, most Americans either oppose the idea or are unsure what to think. Our poll also finds that while Americans overwhelmingly want the United States to be “the leader of the global economy,” most Americans don’t see membership in the WTO as critical to that goal. These responses imply that most Americans are relatively unaware of the WTO’s role, and that the benefits of US participation are far from obvious to the general public. The results also imply that any momentum for US withdrawal largely reflects the work of a motivated minority, versus a groundswell of public will.
A plurality of Americans support leaving the WTO – but almost as many are “unsure” or “indifferent.”
TradeVistas’ July 2020 survey of 1,000 adults found that 36 percent of Americans support leaving the WTO, including 19 percent who “strongly support” US withdrawal and 17 percent who “somewhat support” the idea. In contrast, 35 percent of Americans say they are “indifferent” or “unsure,” while 28 percent oppose withdrawal, including 18 percent who “strongly” object to the idea.
Our survey found that 45 percent of men (versus 29 percent of women) approve of leaving the WTO, including 48 percent of white men and 37 percent of men of color. Fully 25 percent of all men “strongly” support the idea, versus only 14 percent of women who feel the same. We also found that 51 percent of men under age 45 support the idea, as do 66 percent of Republican men.
These results, however, reflect broader generational and partisan splits. Overall, 41 percent of Americans under age 45 want the US to leave the WTO as do 57 percent of Republicans. In contrast, the respondents most likely to oppose withdrawal are those over age 65 (42 percent) and Democrats (49 percent). Responses did not differ significantly by education level or by income.
When voters understand the role of the WTO, they are more likely to be supportive of it.
Despite Americans’ seeming indifference or, in some cases, hostility toward US participation in the WTO, many Americans also see how the organization can benefit US companies – once they receive some basic information about the WTO’s role.
After being told that “the job of the WTO is to enforce a set of rules for international trade that the members negotiated, and 164 countries agreed to follow,” 49 percent of survey respondents said it was “definitely true” or “probably true” that “WTO rules help US companies compete on fair terms,” while 48 percent agreed it was definitely or probably true that “WTO rules stop foreign governments from applying unfair requirements to US companies.”
Those most likely to say these statements are true were also those most opposed to the United States’ leaving the WTO. In fact, a whopping 74 percent of those who “strongly” oppose withdrawal say that WTO rules help US compete, while 67 percent say the WTO stops foreign governments from discriminating against US companies.
Interestingly, however, a majority of the respondents who support WTO withdrawal also believe these statements to be true. For instance, 53 percent of those who “strongly” support leaving say the WTO helps companies compete, while 55 percent say the WTO blocks unfair trade rules. This response suggests that for some Americans, opposition to WTO participation could be a “gut-level” response potentially open to tempering.
Americans want the US to lead the global economy – but don’t see how the WTO can help.
By overwhelming margins – regardless of gender, age, party or race – Americans want to see their country “be the leader of the global economy.” Fully 79 percent of those surveyed rated this goal to be important, including 39 percent who called it “very important.”
Most Americans, however, don’t see WTO membership as instrumental to America’s economic success. When asked if WTO withdrawal “would help or hurt the United States standing as a global leader,” 33 percent of Americans said it would “definitely help” or “probably help,” while 18 percent said “it wouldn’t make a difference” and 13 percent were unsure. Just 36 percent said it would “definitely hurt” or “probably hurt” the United States’ global economic standing to leave the WTO.
Not surprisingly, those most likely to say that withdrawal would help the US are among the minority who also strongly support leaving the organization. Of those who “strongly” support withdrawal, 58 percent also say this would “definitely help.” In contrast, among those who strongly oppose withdrawal, 70 percent say it would “definitely hurt.” It’s worth remembering, however, that both of these groups are relatively small subsets, substantially outnumbered by those who are indifferent, unsure, or have malleable views.
The TradeVistas poll findings suggest that the majority of Americans have formed no real opinion on the WTO and that strong support for withdrawal is limited to a minority of – albeit potentially vocal – voters. Even among these Americans, however, it’s possible that their support for withdrawal is based less on deep knowledge of the WTO than on partisan leanings or a general distrust toward institutions. Importantly, more than 40 percent of adults under the age of 45 support withdrawal from the WTO, with an equal amount simply indifferent or unsure.
Without question, our survey is limited in its scope and offers only the briefest of snapshots on American attitudes toward a global institution of long standing and enormous impact. What is clear, however, is that the vacuum of general public knowledge on the WTO could easily be filled by its detractors, if the organization’s defenders allow it.
Methodology: 1000 interviews among adults age 18+ were conducted from July 10-13, 2020 by Lincoln Park Strategies using an online survey. The results were weighted to ensure proportional responses. The Bayesian confidence interval for 1,000 interviews is 3.5, which is roughly equivalent to a margin of error of ±3.1 at the 95% confidence level.
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