Sixteen years ago, in December 1987, Congressman Richard Gephardt, then making his first run for president, was assailed by his Democratic rivals as a protectionist. Senator Al Gore referred to Gephardt's trade legislation as "nonsense." Senator Gary Hart, also seeking the nomination, called the protectionism embodied in Gephardt's trade proposals "the worst old idea I've heard in this campaign." Governor Bruce Babbitt said protectionism represented a "pessimistic fear that America can't compete." During the primaries, Governor Michael Dukakis, the eventual nominee, defended free trade.
In the 1992 campaign, candidate Bill Clinton helped to cement his image as a New Democrat by championing free trade. And a little more than a year after his election, in December 1993, he signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement removing all economic barriers with Mexico. Clinton called the NAFTA vote a "defining moment for our nation."
Today, the center of gravity of the Democratic party on trade has shifted. Nearly all of the Democratic candidates stand shoulder to shoulder with Gephardt on the issue. Has public opinion shifted? This collection of polls attempts to answer that question. It includes surveys taken before the vote on NAFTA and shortly after its passage. It also includes contemporary questions. What does it show?
First, and most importantly, large numbers of Americans still don't have strong feelings about NAFTA. When pollsters give people the option of replying "haven't heard enough to have an opinion," between one-third and half of those surveyed give that response. In seven iterations of an NBC News/Wall Street Journal question asked between September 1992 and October 1993, for example, more than 35 percent responded that they had not heard enough about the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico to have an opinion. In four Los Angeles Times polls between September and June 1993, about half said they had not heard enough about the free trade agreement between Mexico and the United States to venture an opinion.
Since President Clinton signed the legislation on December 8, 1993, substantial numbers of people have said that they don't know enough about NAFTA to say whether it is good or bad for the country. In questions asked by NBC News/Wall Street Journal interviewers in 1997 and in 2003, around 45 percent said they were either not sure of NAFTA's impact or didn't think it had had much of an impact. In two Zogby International questions from 1997 and 2003, more than a quarter said they were not sure whether NAFTA had created or lost jobs for the U.S. This consistently large bloc of undecided Americans may indicate our limited attention to trade issues. It may also reflect the fact that NAFTA has not directly touched the lives of most Americans at their own jobs or as consumers. It also probably reveals the deep ambivalence many Americans have about trade. Two questions from 1993 illustrate this two-mindedness. A question asked by Yankelovich, Time, and CNN in March 1993 found 76 percent agreeing that past international trade agreements had caused a loss of jobs in the United States. Another question posed by Princeton Survey Research Associates and Newsweek interviewers in the summer of 1993 found an identical 76 percent saying that international trade is a good thing for the United States.
Today Americans want to protect the jobs of workers, but at the same time, they believe that free trade gives them more choices and cheaper goods and makes American industry more competitive. They approve of free trade policies in general. The data here also suggest that Americans may be feeling a bit more comfortable with globalization than they were a decade ago. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2002 found that most people in the United States thought "growing business ties between the United States and other countries" were good for them and their families (79 percent) and good for the United States (78 percent). The findings were especially impressive because 55 percent of those surveyed thought that the availability of good paying jobs had gotten worse over the last five years in the United States. Additionally, 72 percent agreed (28 percent strongly and 44 percent mostly) that "most people are better off in a free market economy, even though some people are rich and some people are poor."
So what accounts for the rhetoric from most of the Democratic candidates? Clearly one factor is the views of activists who are likely to participate in caucuses and primaries. A third of Democrats in Iowa surveyed by the Democratic firm Greenberg Quinlan Rosner said it was very important to them that a candidate be committed to changing NAFTA. Twenty-three percent of Democrats and Independents in New Hampshire gave that response, as did 38 percent of Democrats in South Carolina. Fewer than 10 percent of those surveyed in each of the three states said it was not important at all.
Nationally, only small numbers of Americans want to scrap NAFTA. Seventeen percent of those surveyed nationally in a 1997 EPIC-MRA poll said we should pull out of the agreement In March 2003, 12 percent gave that response. At the other end of the spectrum, 30 percent in 1997 and around 20 percent today say it should be continued as is. Opinion bulks in the middle category "continue with changes." Although the question isn't asked often, around 15 percent tell the pollsters their job is threatened by foreign competition.