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For Trump's 2020 re-election, not all tariffs are created equal

The president's trade war might hurt his voters who work in agriculture, but the scene is very different for voters in auto and manufacturing industries.

WASHINGTON — Since his arrival in Washington, President Donald Trump has brought a different approach to trade, sparking fights with U.S. allies and adversaries in search of better deals. But as the 2020 election draws closer, a look at some of the numbers shows not all trade disputes are equal in the eyes of the nation’s electoral map.

Consider Trump's trade fight with China.

Last week those talks hit another bump in the road as both sides dug in a little deeper. The United States raised tariffs on $200 billion of Chinese imports and the Chinese responded by raising tariffs on $60 billion in U.S. goods.

The impact of that fight can be felt around the U.S. economy, but America's farmers have taken some of the biggest hits as the Chinese have hiked tariffs on U.S. agricultural products such as corn, wheat and soybeans.

Those agricultural tariffs have some very specific targets. Look at the top 10 states for crop acreage in 2018.

Look at the top 10 states for crop acreage in 2018.

The affected swath runs right through the heartland and a collection of states that was very good to Trump in 2016. All but two of those states on that list supported Trump in the last presidential race.

And that’s not unintentional. The Chinese created a set of tariffs that would hurt Trump politically. But the tariff impacts have led some people to question the political wisdom of such a fight for Trump. How can the president fight a war that hits so directly at his voters?

Part of the answer may be because he doesn't really have to worry much about them. Their political loyalty looks solid. Look at the outcomes in those states in 2016. Trump won most of them by huge margins.

Part of the answer may be because he doesn't really have to worry much about them. Their political loyalty looks solid. Look at the outcomes in those states in 2016.

The closest states on that list in 2016 were Iowa and Texas, and Trump won both by 9 percentage points. And some of the states — North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Kansas — were massive 20-plus-point blowouts.

In other words, even if Trump takes a hit in the states on this list, his 2020 chances aren’t likely to be affected too harshly. If he wins Kansas by 18 points instead of 20, he still gets the state’s six electoral votes.

Why are they so safe? The truth is, despite all talk about trade and the economy, other issues matter more to some voters. Many of these states have a deep vein of cultural conservatism running through them. Among the eight states Trump won on that list, only Iowa (three times) and Indiana (once) have voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 2000.

But not all trade fights are created equal. Consider the news this week around auto tariffs.

On Wednesday, the Trump Administration announced it was delaying a possible 25 percent tariff on foreign cars and car parts by up to six months. The auto tariffs have been aggressively opposed by both U.S. and foreign automakers who say the fee’s imposition could lead to a loss of 700,000 jobs in the United States.

The Trump Administration could still choose to impose auto tariffs at a later date, but the more cautious approach on autos may have something to do with the automakers and suppliers make up important parts of the states that won 2016 for Trump: Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

In each of these states Trump's victory margin was less than one percentage point.

In each of those states, Trump’s victory margin was less than one percentage point and in each state, the number of auto industry employees far exceeds the number of votes that gave Trump his win.

Simply put, every vote is likely to matter in those states in 2020 and right now Trump has a good re-election argument to make to them.

The workers in those states have enjoyed the fruits of a booming economy under Trump. The unemployment rate in each is 4 percent or lower — down from when Trump took office. And the auto industry has added 42,000 manufacturing jobs in that period.

But anything that changes that situation could be problematic for the president. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin aren’t like Kansas and North Dakota. They have a history of voting Democratic in presidential races. In fact, until 2016, they had all voted Democratic in every presidential race since 1992.

As the tariff fights go on, those are points to keep in mind.

Trade disputes may center on economic leverage and better deals, but they are also about politics. And as 2020 gets closer, the states affected by a trade fight may be just as or more important than the deals the Trump Administration has in mind.