Americans would rather train for new jobs, than bring back old ones: poll

Workers and robots labour side-by-side with plastic thread made from recycled bottles at the Repreve Bottle Processing Center, part of the Unifi textile company in Yadkinville, N.C., in an October 21, 2016, file photo.
Workers and robots labour side-by-side with plastic thread made from recycled bottles at the Repreve Bottle Processing Center, part of the Unifi textile company in Yadkinville, N.C., in an October 21, 2016, file photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP-Chuck Burton

WASHINGTON – An influx of new polling suggests Americans aren’t especially interested in turning back the clock on globalization – but do want policies that help American workers compete in the international-trade era.

A massive survey released Tuesday by Pew Research provides a glimpse into the American psyche as the president threatens to scrap trade deals, including the 23-year-old NAFTA agreement.

READ MORE: Automakers join coalition to push Donald Trump on NAFTA: ‘We’re winning’ with agreement

The 5,000-person triennial survey breaks American voters down into nine types: four brands of conservative, four types of liberal and one category of bystanders with little interest in politics.

It examines their views on a variety of issues and illustrates how the most active partisans tend to have the most extreme politics, giving small subsets of the population the opportunity to dominate large political parties.

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A rare topic that unites the staunchest conservative and liberal ideologues might be of interest to the Canadians, Mexicans, and Americans following the NAFTA drama: continuing global trade.

When Americans are given a choice between the bring-back-old-jobs message commonly heard in Donald Trump’s Washington versus an economy where American workers are trained to succeed in a globalized future, it’s no contest.

The latter wins in a slam-dunk.

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“Bring back jobs that match current skills,” got a mere 16 per cent support versus, 81 per cent for, “Train in skills needed for jobs in demand,” – and that pattern held up through all categories, including the group called, “Country First Conservatives,” the archetypal Trump supporters, who favoured the retraining message over the bring-back-jobs message by 62 per cent to 30 per cent.

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The pattern continued in a question about participation in the global economy.

Just 29 per cent said they supported a statement that such participation is a, “bad thing because it lowers wages and costs jobs,” versus 65 per cent who said it’s a, “good thing because it provides the U.S. with new markets and opportunities for growth.” On this question, Country First Conservatives were alone as the only one of nine categories to call it a bad thing (45 to 39), easily outnumbered by other types of conservatives and liberals.

This poll’s findings match other new polling.

A study by the University of Maryland’s Program for Public Consultation released last week found very narrow support for NAFTA: 51 per cent said it’s been good, mainly Democrats, and 46 per cent said it’s bad, mostly Republicans.

But it found some consensus on a path forward.

Asked whether they favour free trade, combined with programs to help affected workers; favour free trade, without new support programs for workers; or oppose free trade, 77 per cent fell into the two pro-trade categories. Only 22 per cent said they opposed free trade.

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In addition, more than three-quarters supported adding new labour and environmental standards to trade agreements to remove unfair advantages that sway investment away from the United States.

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Only 38 per cent wanted to slow down or reverse international trade – but Republicans were split down the middle, at 50 per cent. That split has played out within the Trump cabinet, amid searing debates over what to do with NAFTA.

Donald Trump’s UN ambassador has just made clear which side she’s on.

Nikki Haley said when she was South Carolina governor people were overjoyed to have five international tire companies and three international auto companies in her state, saying, “Everyone wins,” from those partnerships.

“I don’t see us tearing up any deals. If that was the case we would have done it already,” she told a discussion at the George W. Bush Institute, when NAFTA came up.

“There’s nothing wrong with going back and looking at them. There’s nothing wrong with seeing if we can make them better.”

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That pro-trade wing of the GOP is extremely powerful, the Pew numbers suggest.

The most politically engaged group of party supporters, and the most numerous, is what Pew calls “Core Conservative” – richer, more educated, ideological people whose opinions run closer to Haley’s. More than two-thirds of people in this group called global trade a good thing, versus barely one-third of people in the Country First category.

READ MORE: NAFTA talks leave some Canadians working in the U.S. uncertain about their jobs

And this group carries disproportionate weight, according to Pew: Core Conservatives represent just 13 per cent of the public, but make up about 31 per cent of all Republicans, and 43 per cent of all politically engaged Republicans, singlehandedly swaying debates like climate change, where their view becomes the party view.

A third new survey also finds big support for worker-friendly trade policies.

Veteran Democrat pollster Stan Greenberg wrote a memo last week urging his party to get more involved in the NAFTA debate. His Democracy Corps polled 1,000 respondents and found the most convincing argument for changing NAFTA was that American workers are losing because it lacks enforceable labour and environmental standards, so companies shift jobs to low-cost Mexico.

Greenberg wrote: “Over 80 per cent of Trump voters and over 60 per cent of Clinton voters found that a convincing argument against the current NAFTA. But new terms to remedy this do not appear to be at the top of the Trump trade agenda.”

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