Americans prefer Trump's approach to trade to Biden's — but are split on big tariffs on China

Taylor OrthDirector of Survey Data Journalism
March 22, 2024, 4:46 PM GMT+0

Americans are divided on whether tariffs on foreign goods should be increased or decreased, but there is some consensus on the effects of raising them: that higher tariffs would help domestic industries and government revenue while hurting the affordability and variety of goods. Many say higher tariffs would benefit the U.S. economy overall while damaging the economies of countries we impose tariffs on. More approve of Donald Trump's approach to trade than approve of Joe Biden's, though there is sharp division on Trump's proposal to impose a 60% tariff on Chinese imports.

Trade and tariffs

There is little consensus among Americans when it comes to how much trade the U.S. should be engaging in with other countries, or how much we should be taxing goods we import. Slightly more would like to increase foreign trade (27%) than would like to decrease it (19%); 31% want to maintain the same amount, and 23% are not sure. Republicans are somewhat more likely than Democrats and Independents to support decreasing trade.

Regarding tariffs on foreign goods, Americans are about as likely to want them increased (24%) as they are to want them decreased (20%); 27% say they should be kept the same and 29% are not sure. Republicans are more than twice as likely as Democrats and Independents to support increasing tariffs. However, even among Republicans there is no clear consensus: Just 38% favor increasing tariffs, 20% want to decrease them, and 21% prefer to keep them the same.

To see how opinions on tariffs have changed over time, we included in our survey a question that had been asked by Gallup throughout the 1950s: "By and large, do you favor higher tariffs or lower tariffs than we have at present?" There has been a modest increase in support for raising tariffs since the 1950s. Support for lower tariffs has fallen 8 percentage points since 1953, while support for higher tariffs has risen 5 points. The same share of Americans — 36% — say they have no opinion on the matter.

Today, two-thirds of Americans (66%) say that increasing tariffs on foreign goods imported into the U.S. generally increases prices. 9% say it has no effect and 4% say it decreases prices. But most people who want tariffs increased (61%) say they would support increasing tariffs even if doing so leads to higher prices for American consumers; 23% would oppose an increase if it led to higher prices and 17% are unsure.

More Americans believe the U.S. economy overall would be helped (39%) by raising tariffs than believe it would be hurt (25%). 41% expect increasing tariffs would damage the economies of countries we impose tariffs on while 15% say they would be helped.

Government revenue is more likely to be expected to benefit from higher tariffs than to be harmed, and the same is true for domestic industries. But more say raising taxes on foreign goods would harm than help the affordability and variety of goods, and the same is the case for their own financial wellbeing.

There is also a lack of consensus on which countries the U.S. should impose tariffs on, though most agree we should tax goods imported from at least some places. One in five (20%) say tariffs should be imposed on all countries we trade with, while 15% say we should impose them on most countries. 38% say they should only be imposed on either our adversaries or countries with unfair trade practices.

When selecting all that apply from a list of circumstances in which the U.S. might impose tariffs, the largest share (48%) say tariffs should be used to protect U.S. businesses from unfair foreign trade practices. 43% say they should be used to protect workers from unfair labor practices, 40% to encourage the development of domestic industries, and 39% to ensure national security by limiting dependence on foreign products. Fewer (27%) are in favor of using tariffs to punish or retaliate against countries that impose tariffs on U.S. goods.

Republicans are more likely than Democrats to favor tariffs as a tool for ensuring national security, as well as for encouraging growth in domestic industries. They also are more likely to support using tariffs as a retaliatory measure. Democrats, on the other hand, are more supportive of using tariffs to protect foreign workers from human rights abuses, and the environment from unsafe foreign manufacturing processes.

Trade with China

Former President Donald Trump, the likely 2024 Republican presidential candidate, has long pushed for increasing tariffs, particularly on goods from China. In a recent interview, Trump said he's considering a plan to impose tariffs of 60% or higher on Chinese goods if elected president this year. Americans are divided on this proposal: 38% strongly or somewhat support it while 35% strongly or somewhat oppose it. About half of Republicans (52%) support a 60% tariff on Chinese goods, which is significantly more than the 30% of Democrats who are in favor of it.

While many Americans are unsure about the fairness of trade with China, three-quarters of those with an opinion say that China's trade policy with the U.S. is unfair. About half as many say the same about the U.S.'s trade policy regarding China.
A larger share of Democrats now view U.S. trade policy with China as fair (45%) than did in 2019 when Trump was president (27%). Republicans' views have not changed significantly since 2019.

42% of Americans say a trade war between the U.S. and China is at least somewhat likely to happen within the next year. One in four (26%) believe the U.S. and China are currently engaged in a trade war. Overall, 47% say a trade war is occurring now, is very likely in the next year, or both.

More Americans say the U.S. would be hurt most by a trade war than say China would (42% vs. 30%). The same was true among both Democrats and Independents more think a U.S.-China trade war would hurt the U.S. most, rather than China. But Republicans are about as likely to say either participant in the hypothetical trade war would be most hurt.

Compared to five years ago, Democrats are now 22 points less likely to say the U.S. would be hurt more by a trade war with China than China would. Republicans, on the other hand, are now 18 points more likely to say that the U.S. would be hurt most in a trade war with China.

Biden and Trump on trade

How do Americans evaluate the trade policies of the front-runners for the major parties' presidential nominations? Somewhat more strongly or somewhat approve of Trump's approach to foreign trade (42%) than do of Biden's (31%). Democrats are more likely than Republicans to be unsure what they think of both candidates' positions on trade, and Independents are even likelier to be unsure: nearly half say they don't have an opinion.

Do Americans know where Biden and Trump stand on whether to increase or decrease tariffs? At least one in three say they do not know each candidate's stance, and among those who do, there is more consensus on Trump's position than on Biden's. 44% of Americans believe Trump wants to increase tariffs, compared to just 14% who say Biden does. More say Biden wants tariffs kept the same (29%) than say Trump does (14%). 21% think Biden wants to decrease tariffs, compared to just 9% for Trump. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to believe Biden wants to decrease tariffs.

— Carl Bialik contributed to this article

See the results for this YouGov poll

Methodology: This poll was conducted online on February 27 - 29, 2024 among 1,000 U.S. adult citizens. Respondents were selected from YouGov’s opt-in panel using sample matching. A random sample (stratified by gender, age, race, education, geographic region, and voter registration) was selected from the 2019 American Community Survey. The sample was weighted according to gender, age, race, education, 2020 election turnout and presidential vote, baseline party identification, and current voter registration status. Demographic weighting targets come from the 2019 American Community Survey. Baseline party identification is the respondent’s most recent answer given prior to November 1, 2022, and is weighted to the estimated distribution at that time (33% Democratic, 31% Republican). The margin of error for the overall sample is approximately 4%.

Image: Getty (Yaorusheng)

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