As President Trump again ratchets up trade tensions with China and Canada, he has the strong backing of Republican voters. But he risks putting his party’s congressional candidates — many of whom are more supportive of free trade — in a bind.
Top Republicans in Congress love Mr. Trump’s tax cuts, but they do not love the tariffs that have become the centerpiece of his trade policy. This combination is a classic conservative position that favors low taxes, whether on income or on imports.
Few Americans outside Washington share that view.
Republican voters across the country approve of Mr. Trump’s tariffs almost as much as they approve of his tax cuts, according to a survey conducted for The New York Times in early September by the online polling firm SurveyMonkey. Democrats disapprove of tariffs and tax cuts by an equally enthusiastic degree. Independents are more split, but they lean toward the Democratic position on both issues.
Not even one in 10 American voters in the survey expressed support for the tax cuts while opposing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum — the stated preference of Republican leaders including the House speaker, Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, and the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.
That leaves Republican congressional hopefuls with few safe options. Candidates who embrace Mr. Trump’s trade policies risk turning off independent voters, as well as the business leaders who are a key part of the Republican donor base. But bucking Mr. Trump could alienate many Republicans.
The results could help explain why congressional Republicans have done little to block Mr. Trump’s tariffs, beyond condemning them in news releases and interviews. They suggest that trade has become a proxy question for support of Mr. Trump, like so many other policy issues.
“It’s a significant problem for elected Republicans, since they are almost universally free traders,” said Tony Fratto, a former Bush administration official who is now a partner at Hamilton Place Strategies, a public affairs consulting firm in Washington. “Trump’s protectionism is putting Republican members out of step with both their president and their base. That’s a tough place to be.”
The issue isn’t likely to fade into the background. On Monday, Mr. Trump tweeted that countries that don’t make fair trade deals will be “tariffed.” And by the end of the day, he had announced a fresh round of tariffs on $200 billion in Chinese-made goods.
Few Republicans break with Trump on tariffs
The awkwardness starts at the top for congressional Republicans. Mr. Ryan, for example, has been one of the loudest cheerleaders for the $1.5 trillion in tax cuts that Republicans sped through Congress late last year, and has frequently praised Mr. Trump for them. He criticized Mr. Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs when they were announced.
“There are better ways to help American workers and consumers,” Mr. Ryan said in May, after Mr. Trump allowed the tariffs to hit imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union. “I intend to keep working with the president on those better options.”
Last week, though, Mr. Ryan urged “patience” for Wisconsin farmers who have been caught in an escalating series of tariffs between the United States and China. “So I think the idea and the strategy of — it’s hard ball, it’s tariffs, it’s tough talk — but if it results in good agreements with our allies and a unified developed world front to go get China to play by the rules, then that’s a pretty darn good outcome,” Mr. Ryan told the website Wispolitics.com. “So I would simply say, be patient for that.”
But to the chagrin of some Washington conservatives, Republican voters nationwide support Mr. Trump just as strongly on trade as they do on taxes — and they say trade will be a bigger factor in their midterm vote. Among registered voters, 80 percent of Republicans support Mr. Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs, compared with 84 percent who support the tax cuts. Nearly two-thirds of them say that the North American Free Trade Agreement has been bad for the American economy.
Seventy-four percent of Republican voters say Mr. Trump’s trade policies make them more likely to vote for a Republican congressional candidate. A SurveyMonkey poll conducted in August found that 64 percent of Republican voters said the tax law made them more likely to vote for a Republican.
Those numbers might not be a sign of a philosophical shift against trade, said Mattie Duppler, senior fellow for fiscal policy for the conservative National Taxpayers Union. “In some sense, Republicans have broadly accepted that we’re taking a new, unorthodox approach on trade,” she said. “Not because we’ve abandoned traditional conservatives, but because what we were doing in the past wasn’t working.”
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The political peril grows outside of the Republican base
Still, traditional pro-trade Republicans in swing congressional districts appear to be walking a difficult line with the base supporters whose turnout in November is essential to Republican efforts to hold the House and the Senate. Republicans don’t want candidates to ignore economic policy: A plurality — 33 percent — rate the economy as the most important issue this year.
At the same time, Mr. Trump’s policies are galvanizing Democrats in opposition. Eight-five percent of them oppose the tax law, with more than half of them opposing it strongly. Eighty percent oppose the steel and aluminum tariffs, and 84 percent say Mr. Trump’s trade policies make them less likely to vote Republican. Nearly three-quarters say the Nafta has been good for the economy.
And as there has been throughout Mr. Trump’s term, there is a sharp partisan divide in Americans’ view of the economy as a whole. Sixty-one percent of Republicans say their personal finances have improved over the past year, compared with 16 percent of Democrats.
Independents are the biggest risk — for both parties
More than half of independent voters oppose Mr. Trump’s tax law and his tariffs. More than half say that Nafta, which the administration aims to rework, has been good for the economy. By a 3-to-1 margin, they say Mr. Trump’s trade policies make them less likely to vote for a Republican congressional candidate.
Perhaps most concerning for Republicans, Mr. Trump’s economic policies are even less popular among independents who live in competitive congressional districts, the polling shows. But as Ms. Duppler notes, it could be difficult for more populist Democrats to court those voters on trade grounds. “Democrats,” she said, “sounded for a long time on trade like President Trump sounds now.”
Many Republican leaders have tried to paper over trade issues and focus on economic performance, including faster growth and low unemployment, in hopes that voters will give them credit for an improving economy. There, too, the polling suggests difficulty ahead.
Unlike Republicans, independents don’t feel great about the economy. Only 29 percent of independents say they’re better off financially than they were a year ago. Looking ahead, 35 percent say they’ll be better off a year from now.
And independents who are following the election closely feel worse about the economy, on average, than those who are paying less attention.
About the survey: The data in this article came from an online survey of 8,944 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from Sept. 3 to Sept. 9. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly three million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.