Donald Trump's break with conservative economic thinking on free trade comes as Republicans are increasingly relying on older, struggling white voters who are the most skeptical of trade deals and have lost out during an age of globalization.
Polls on the complex issue of trade are mixed, but many show that Republican voters, more than Democratic ones, oppose trade deals. A Pew Research Center survey in March found that 52 percent of Republicans viewed trade deals as bad, while only 30 percent of Democrats did. A Bloomberg poll found that 53 percent of Republicans said the North American Free Trade Agreement was bad, while only 36 percent of Democrats did.
Part of the divide may be Republican distrust of President Barack Obama, who has made cementing an Asian trade agreement a top priority. But the shift against free trade may also reflect a political realignment that Trump's candidacy, which draws its greatest support from whites who have not graduated from college, is accelerating.
On Tuesday, Trump gave a speech calling for the rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership, the pending Asia-Pacific trade deal, and the reversal of NAFTA, the U.S-Mexico-Canada agreement signed by President George H. W. Bush and implemented by President Bill Clinton.
U.S. & World
"The Democratic coalition is doing pretty well in the American economy and older white voters with lesser skills have an acute set of economic problems," said Simon Rosenberg, president of the New Democratic Network in Washington.
He noted that young people and minorities — the cornerstone of the Democratic coalition —are more supportive of trade and other facets of globalization, such as immigration.
But Democrats are also divided. During the primary, Sen. Bernie Sanders bashed the TPP, despite Obama's support for it. Hillary Clinton — who as secretary of state helped negotiate the deal — has turned against it. After Trump's speech Tuesday, Clinton's campaign sent out a press release noting that she has also called for tough trade measures.
One indication of how the politics of trade has been upended came Thursday, when Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto — all members of center-left parties — countered Trump and forcefully defended the value of free trade during a joint press conference.
"The elites of the Democratic and Republican parties have had a consensus on so-called free trade and the base of both parties has not been happy," said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff for the AFL-CIO.
It's partly happenstance that that unhappiness has bubbled up now, seven years into the recovery from the so-called Great Recession. Prior Republican presidential candidates, like former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, also questioned the value of trade deals and tried to shift the GOP toward blue-collar voters. But they lacked Trump's financial resources and his ability to get his message heard through the media.
For decades, free trade was a core bipartisan issue, said Barry Bosworth, an economist at the Brookings Institution in Washington. During the Cold War, free trade helped promote American values and voters along with both parties - and the labor movement -- strongly supported it. That consensus started unraveling in the 1990s as labor unions increasingly questioned deals like NAFTA. Now the consensus has splintered.
"This has been latent in American society and it's growing in strength," Bosworth said. "The gains of trade accrue to you in the form of a consumer — you get access to all these cheap products. But as a worker, you feel threatened. America is feeling more threatened."
Economists say trade clearly has winners and losers -- but the losers feel the impact most acutely, such as when a factory closes. Consumers benefit from lower prices, but that's cold comfort for those unable to find work, as opposed to white-collar professionals whose jobs are not so easily shipped overseas.
Kellyanne Conway, a GOP pollster, said those who have been left behind are rebelling. "People are making the connection between government policy on immigration and trade and their inability to afford an everyday life," she said. "The one-two punch of Sanders and Trump has elevated the issue."
Stephen Moore, a prominent conservative economist who is a Trump adviser, is caught in the crossfire. Moore has long advocated free trade. He says he's gotten grief from conservative intellectuals over his support for Trump, but he understands the politics have changed.
"Part of it is a reaction to Obama. Republicans just don't trust Obama to represent America's interest," said Moore, adding he agrees with Trump over the need for tougher trade negotiations.
A former member of the Reagan administration, Moore has always been proud that the GOP has been the party of free trade. But he said the last protectionist president was a Republican: Herbert Hoover.
"There's been a history of this issue swinging back from one party to another," Moore said.