Politicians take a negative view on trade deals — even the ones they voted for

 In World

Trucks travel on an overpass to the World Trade Bridge in Laredo, Tex. (AP)

With the next round of North American Free Trade renegotiations underway, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives in D.C. today to lobby hard on all the NAFTA benefits — targeting vocal critic President Trump but also the broader American public.

Trump speaks loudly and frequently about trade matters — and is negative on trade. He’s not alone in this respect, as this is classic campaign-trail rhetoric for most U.S. politicians. As a result, defenders of trade agreements face a skeptical public.

Candidates tend to talk tough on trade

During the September 2016 presidential debate, candidate Trump called the two-decade-old NAFTA “the worst trade deal maybe ever signed anywhere.” And Trump repeatedly denounced current agreements for failing “to stop these countries from stealing our companies and our jobs.”

Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders voiced similar sentiments during the debates and in stump speeches across America, condemning “disastrous” trade agreements.

While Trump and Sanders expressed similar views on trade, so do many other elected officials — even those who actually vote for trade agreements. When politicians speak about trade, they seldom do so in a positive light.

… even if the candidate actually voted for trade deals

For the 2000, 2002, 2004 and 2008 U.S. presidential and midterm elections, the Wisconsin Advertising Project has compiled and indexed campaign advertisements from the country’s largest media markets. I looked at the 385 identified as “trade-related,” then further coded the tone of each ad.

Here’s what I found: When candidates discuss trade, the overall tone is negative. In the 2000 election cycle — just six years after completion of the NAFTA negotiations — only three candidates (none of whom were presidential candidates) ran a trade-related campaign ad. Only one of those, in support of Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), offered a pro-trade message.

In the 2004 election cycle, discussion of trade increased but was again one sided. Of the 115 trade-related advertisements, 113 promoted the need to protect the U.S. market from imports and increased outsourcing of jobs abroad. The two remaining ads were not pro-protection, but only one was explicitly in favor of imports.

In the 2008 election cycle, 95 percent of the airtime devoted to trade offered a negative spin — 130 of the 184 trade-related ads explicitly supported the need for protection, even though the majority of the incumbents that year had supported trade liberalization during the previous legislative session.

The 2012 election was no different. Of the 143 trade-related ads, only three were pro-trade. Again, many of the negative trade-related ads were at odds with congressional voting records.

In 2012, Public Citizen called out 18 Democrats and Republicans who supported the Korea Free Trade Agreement, yet still ran ads against offshoring. Public Citizen highlighted that six Republican incumbents were running ads against trade liberalization despite a “100 percent track record of support for every single NAFTA-style trade deal arising under their tenure.”

Would pro-trade political campaign ads influence beliefs about trade?

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