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Support for free trade reaches new high in NBC/WSJ poll

Amid the ongoing trade war with China, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they support free trade in the latest NBC News/WSJ poll.
Image: Donald Trump
President Donald Trump speaks during a visit to Shell's soon-to-be completed Pennsylvania Petrochemicals Complex in Monaca on Aug. 13, 2019.Susan Walsh / AP

WASHINGTON — Amid President Donald Trump’s trade war with China, nearly two-thirds of Americans say they support free trade with foreign countries, according to the latest national poll from NBC News and the Wall Street Journal.

That represents a new high in the NBC/WSJ survey on this question, and it’s a 7-point increase from the last time it was asked in 2017.

Among other findings in the poll, overwhelming majorities support certain gun-control measures, even as the country remains divided on whether the government should restrict access to guns. Those sentiments come in the wake of the shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio that killed more than 30 people.

And Trump’s political standing remains in dangerous territory ahead of his re-election fight next year, with just four in 10 Americans approving of his job and saying they’ll vote for him in 2020.

“This is not an attractive set of numbers for an incumbent,” said Republican pollster Bill McInturff, who conducted this survey with the Democratic pollsters from Hart Research Associates.

All-time high support for free trade

In the poll, 64 percent of Americans — including majorities of Democrats and Republicans — agree with the statement that free trade is good for America, because it opens up new markets, and the country can’t avoid the fact of a global economy.

Just 27 percent believe free trade is bad, because it hurts manufacturing and other key industries, and there’s no proof that more trade creates better jobs.

The percentage of those favoring free trade is up 13 points from 2015 and 7 points from 2017, with Democrats and independents much more supportive than they were four years ago.

And it comes as the United States and China have engaged in a trade war, slapping tariffs on each other’s products, though the U.S. said on Tuesday that it was delaying some tariffs until December.

“While Trump plays a game of chicken on tariffs, a record number of Americans believe that free trade is good,” says Democratic pollster Jeff Horwitt at Hart Research Associates.

McInturff, the GOP pollster, says much of it has to do with opposition to Trump and his policies.

“If Donald Trump is for it and you’re a Democrat, you move in a very different direction,” he said.

The gun debate after El Paso and Dayton

The poll — conducted after the shootings in El Paso and Dayton — also shows broad support for individual gun-control measures:

  • 89 percent say they favor Congress expanding background checks to all firearm sales and transfers, including 75 percent who “strongly” support that;
  • 76 percent back “red flag” laws that help law enforcement temporarily remove guns from those deemed to pose a danger to themselves or others;
  • 75 percent support a voluntary program where the government would buy back firearms that people no longer want;
  • 62 percent favor banning the sale of selected semi-automatic firearms referred to as assault weapons.

Yet only 25 percent of Americans support banning the sale of handguns.

Additionally, the country remains divided over the gun debate at large: 50 percent of Americans (and 75 percent of Democrats) are more concerned that the government won’t do enough to regulate access to firearms, versus 45 percent (and 73 percent of Republicans) who are more concerned the government will go too far in restricting gun rights.

“This is still two radically different parties with two radically different views,” said McInturff. “This does not suggest a substantial shift in Americans’ attitudes.”

Trump’s approval rating stands at 43 percent

As for Trump’s political standing, 43 percent of Americans approve of his overall job performance, down 2 points from July, although that’s well within the poll’s margin of error.

Fifty-five percent say they disapprove, which is up 3 points.

Attitudes about Trump’s handling of the economy are better, with 49 percent approving of his job on that issue.

But only 36 percent of Americans say they approve the president handling the aftermath of the shootings in El Paso and Dayton.

“Americans typically rally around their president in times of national tumult and tragedy,” said Horwitt, the Democratic pollster. “Yet again in his response to the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton, we see that Americans view Donald Trump and his reactions to national tragedies far differently.”

Asked about Trump’s re-election in 2020, a combined 40 percent of registered voters say they will “definitely” or “probably” vote for Trump, while a combined 52 percent say they will “definitely” or “probably” vote for the Democratic candidate.

Those numbers are essentially unchanged from when this question was last asked in December 2018.

Biden’s popularity declines

And as for some of the top 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, former Vice President Joe Biden has seen his popularity among all adults come down to earth — from 54 percent positive and 22 percent negative in January 2018 (+32), to 34 percent positive, 38 percent negative now (-4).

Opinions of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., also have dropped — from 44 percent positive and 30 percent negative in 2017 (+14), to 37 percent positive, 40 percent negative now (-3).

And Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., stands at 31 percent positive and 32 percent negative (-1).

McInturff said those numbers presage a general election — like 2016 — featuring two unpopular party nominees.

“A year from now, both remaining candidates will have a net-negative favorable rating,” he predicted.

The NBC/WSJ poll was conducted Aug. 10-14 of 1,000 adults – more than half reached by cell phone – and it has an overall margin of error of plus-minus 3.1 percentage points.

The margin of error for the 834 registered voters interviewed is plus-minus 3.4 percentage points.