INTERNATIONAL TRADE

Farm-State Voter Sentiment About Trump Has Held Steady Despite Trade War

But experts say Trump’s ratings could fall if trade spat causes long-term damage to agricultural exports

Hogs are raised on the farm of Ted Fox on July 25 near Osage, Iowa. Pork producers in Iowa are bracing for the impact a trade war with China and Mexico may have on their bottom line going forward. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)
  • In agriculture-heavy Iowa and Missouri, Trump’s net approval is up slightly since March, when steel and aluminum tariffs were imposed, though more voters still disapprove than approve of him.

  • Experts say that Trump administration’s recent $12 billion farm aid package offers only short-term relief and that Republicans could still face political risks down the line.

President Donald Trump’s ratings have not taken a significant hit in some of the farm states most affected by the fallout from his trade spat with other countries over the past few months, according to Morning Consult data — but that could change if the economic impact of the duties becomes sharper, experts said.

When Trump moved forward with steel and aluminum duties in March, a major escalation in the United States’ trade war with its international trading partners, critics were vocal about the potential risks to the agriculture industry, much of which is export-oriented and often falls victim to other countries’ retaliatory trade actions. Exports of agricultural products totaled $140.5 billion in fiscal year 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, providing about a fifth of farm income.

There were reasons for concern: In June, responding to the U.S. tariffs, China placed duties on major agricultural exports, notably soybeans and corn.

But so far, Trump’s tariffs haven’t appeared to hurt voter sentiment in the states most heavily affected by the trade war; in fact, it has improved a bit since March in Iowa, a key grower and exporter of soybeans, pork and corn, and Illinois, a major soybean producer, although more voters still disapprove of Trump than approve of him, according to Morning Consult data.

When Trump finalized the steel and aluminum tariffs, his net approval rating among Iowa voters was 11 percentage points underwater, with 43 percent approval, and 24 points underwater in Illinois, with 36 percent approval. Trump won Iowa in the 2016 presidential election but lost Illinois, a state that Democrats dominate around Chicago but Republicans succeed in rural areas where soybean farms are numerous.

A month later, Trump’s net approval had ticked up to minus-7 points in Iowa and 22 points underwater in Illinois. As of June — the most recent data available — Trump was continuing to gain ground, with a rating of minus-4 points in Iowa and negative 20 points in Illinois.

In Kansas and Missouri, two major soybean-, wheat- and corn-producing states that Trump also won in 2016, his net approval has hovered in the single digits since March. In June, his net approval was 6 points in Kansas (51 percent approve, 45 percent disapprove) and 5 points in the Show-Me State (50 percent approve, 45 percent disapprove).

Ian Russell, a Democratic strategist with the firm Beacon Media, said although he thinks the faith of Trump supporters in rural areas hasn’t been broken yet, the administration’s strategy is still risky for the president.

“All it would take is a small number of people saying ‘Nah, I can’t trust you any more’ to shift some races in some states in a very bad way for Republicans,” Russell said in a Wednesday interview.

Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced Tuesday that the administration is preparing a $12 billion package as “short-term” relief for farmers in sectors that have been most affected by retaliatory tariffs from major economic partners like China and the European Union. And on Wednesday, after meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Trump said the two leaders had agreed to a de-escalation of their own bilateral tariff dispute.

Cory Crowley, a Washington-based Republican strategist, said the USDA aid package unveiled this week might temporarily assuage farmers’ concerns.

But he said that in the long run, the industry would prefer open markets instead of the ongoing trade conflict because major competitors could get an upper hand over U.S. producers in markets such as China. And production could still go down in the years ahead, leading to lower returns, he added.

“I think that the short-term effects of this package are fine, but what I’m hearing mostly from farmers is that they’re worried about the long-term damage,” Crowley said.

He added that the timing of the tariffs “couldn’t be worse” for Trump and Republicans, coming ahead of the November midterm elections, with close Senate races expected in Missouri, Wisconsin and North Dakota, among others.

And voters are unlikely to differentiate between Trump’s position on tariffs and the Republican lawmakers who criticize it.

“I think it’s an all-Republican position at this point, and that’s how voters are going to see it,” Crowley said.

That hasn’t stopped some officials from trying to separate themselves from the president’s trade policy. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) told reporters on Tuesday that he would prefer Trump to move ahead with trade agreements and de-escalate trade tensions with major trading partners.

“I want to make certain that the administration understands the importance of exports,” Moran said. “If you’re having to come up with $12 billion to compensate farmers, that’s a pretty good message that exports matter, and our preference would be to have our income come from selling agricultural commodities around the world.”

Rep. Mark Pocan, a Democrat who represents rural areas in southwestern Wisconsin in addition to the liberal stronghold of Madison, said he’s concerned Trump “doesn’t really have a plan when it comes to trade or tariffs.” In Wisconsin, Trump’s June net approval was 13 points underwater, compared to negative 12 points in March.

Pocan, who helped lead the Democratic opposition to Obama-era trade initiatives like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, said that soybean, corn and dairy farmers in his district are nervous, and the USDA proposal might not assuage their worries about the longer-term market impact on commodity prices and production.

“I don’t know if a package of a payoff is enough to make them not still be nervous,” Pocan said in a Tuesday interview on Capitol Hill. “They’re looking at the long-term effects.”