How Trade Shocks Have Helped Republicans Win Elections

Job Market Paper

Do voters care about trade? Traditionally, the answer has been "no" with trade occupying a low-salience space in American politics. The election of Donald Trump, who campaigned on a protectionist platform, suggests that trade is re-emerging as a politically important issue. I explore the shifting salience of trade policy between 2000 and 2016 using individual survey data combined with estimates of trade-related layoffs in the county where the respondent lives. I generate exogenous variation in layoffs by using Chinese exports to developed countries to identify a robust causal link between trade-related layoffs and negative views of trade, suggesting that individuals update their policy preferences in a rationally coherent manner. However, by exploiting the similar policy positions espoused by George W. Bush and Barack Obama, I also show that partisans base their opinions on what their co-partisan / out-partisan president says. Specifically, while Democrat's trade policy preferences are consistently sensitive to trade-related layoffs across both presidential administrations, Republicans become significantly more protectionist during Obama's term, a result consistent with elite communication and motivated reasoning. I connect these changing opinions to presidential vote shares, finding that counties with more sensitive trade opinions recorded significantly higher vote shares for Donald Trump. These results speak to the individual preferences on trade, the mechanisms by which preferences are formed, and the connection between costless survey responses and costly voting behavior during a period in which trade underwent a shift in political salience, culminating in the election of Donald Trump. [BACK]