Farmers back Trump's tariff fight, but don't think it helps them

As 2020 candidates make their pitch to Iowa, polls reveal a complicated political calculus behind trade policy.

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By Dante Chinni

WASHINGTON — As the Trump administration's trade fight with China deepens, the impacts are starting to pile up — particularly in the nation’s farming communities where tariffs targeting agricultural products are hitting hard. And with 2020 approaching, the ongoing dispute could have serious electoral implications.

Polls show a mix of presidential support and policy concerns, revealing a complicated political calculus behind trade policy.

In states like Iowa, where "Meet The Press" talked to voters this week, farmers are thinking a lot about the trade clash, including a move this week from China to suspend buying any agricultural goods from the United States.

The 19-month-old trade fight and its accompanying tariffs are becoming harder and harder to ignore in farm country. China has become one of the largest agricultural trading partners for the United States in recent years. It was a close second to Canada in 2017.

But since the fight began, U.S. agriculture exports to China have plummeted from $19.5 billion in 2017 to just $9.2 billion in 2018. That was the lowest amount since 2007.

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And a cut like that adds to the economic pain in the heartland. Data from the FDIC this June showed that farm bankruptcies were up 13 percent from the previous 12-month period to 535, the highest level since 2012.

For months, analysts have been wondering if the economic hits farmers are taking might come back to bite the White House. Up to now, anecdotal reporting has shown little erosion of support for President Donald Trump and a survey from academics at Iowa State University of 700 farmers in Iowa, Illinois and Minnesota seems to back that reporting.

The survey, led by ISU Professor Wendong Zhang, found that 57 percent of those farmers somewhat or strongly supported the U.S. tariffs on Chinese goods that brought retaliatory tariffs from the Chinese government. Another 14 percent had neutral feelings about them. Only 30 percent somewhat or strongly opposed the tariffs.

There’s a caveat with those numbers. They come from a survey taken in March and April, before the latest exchange of trade blows between the United States and China. But fundamentally, the trade story has been on a stable trajectory. And, overall, the survey results suggest farmers still support Team Trump’s fight by a solid margin.

There is another level in the results of that same survey, however, that raises some questions about what farmers actually think about the larger impact of the tariffs.

For instance, only 14 percent of the farmers surveyed said, a year from now, “My farm operation will be better off financially because of this trade disruption.” And only 20 percent said that, in a year, “U.S. agriculture will be better off compared to now because of this trade disruption.” Meanwhile, more than three quarters said, “American farmers will bear the brunt of the tariffs imposed by the Chinese government.”

Despite the support for tariffs on Chinese goods in the survey, those are not the responses of a group that feels particularly good about the trade fight in the broader sense.

What does that mean for the coming presidential campaign? That’s harder to assess. Primary season is not even here yet and the U.S.-China trade fight could be resolved in the intervening months.

There’s the question of larger partisan allegiances of the agriculture vote. Rural voters tend to be more socially conservative and have long seen the Republican Party as a more comfortable home. That’s one reason why many of the nation’s big agricultural states — such as Kansas and Nebraska — tend to be solidly Republican.

And there is a question of how the Democrats would even take on the issue of the trade fight. Many agricultural communities have long believed China has taken advantage of them by manipulating prices. The tariff fight leaves the Democrats in the difficult position of saying “I also want to take on China, but I would do it differently.” That is a nuanced argument that is hard to make to voters.

But the numbers here indicate that agricultural voters in some key places are at least somewhat skeptical of where the U.S.-China trade fight is going. Iowa (a state Trump flipped in 2016) and neighboring Minnesota (where he lost by less than 2 percentage points) are going to be the states everyone is watching next year.

And farmers in those states, and perhaps others, seem to have a more complicated relationship with the developing trade issue. Many are supporting the president’s tariff fight, at least for now. But it is far less clear that they actually like it.