The Times Poll : Nation Strongly Backs Restriction of Imports

Times Staff Writer

Americans, concerned about jobs, strongly support congressional attempts to restrict foreign imports and tend to blame foreign countries for the trade imbalance rather than internal U.S. policies or problems, a Los Angeles Times Poll found.

Concern about imports is so strong that more Americans now say that foreign trade hurts the country rather than helps it. Three out of four surveyed described as a “serious problem” the United States’ new status as a debtor nation--one that owes more to foreigners than they owe to it. These respondents blamed cheap labor abroad for the success of foreign goods in American markets.

Trade Confrontation

A bill to reduce textile imports--expected to go to the floor of the House within the next several days--was supported by 51% of those surveyed compared to 37% against. The remainder of those questioned were either unsure how they felt or refused to respond. The vote on the bill will be the first major trade confrontation between Congress and the Administration.

Generally, the responses of those surveyed revealed a sense of confusion and frustration over how to resolve the trade imbalance. They were uncertain, for example, whether foreign countries would retaliate if the United States restricted foreign imports. And they believe that a strong dollar is good for the country despite their concern about the trade imbalance.

The telephone poll surveyed 1,967 people across the country over six days, ending Thursday. Times Poll Director I. A. Lewis said the survey has a 3% sampling error, which means that responses might vary by 3% in either direction if every American were polled.


The poll was taken at a time when Congress is grappling with legislation--strongly opposed by President Reagan--to curb imports. Of those who are aware of Reagan’s trade policies, 50% oppose them and 34% approve them. A substantial number, however, were unaware of the President’s policies on the issue.

“This shows that the American public is in favor of the hullabaloo in Congress, and they’re in favor of trade restrictions,” Lewis said. “People are not sure what is going on here, but they’re upset about it. It’s clear to them what ought to be done: We ought to retaliate.”

When asked whether the United States should restrict imports to protect jobs or disavow trade barriers in favor of providing consumers with wide choices and lower prices, respondents favored restrictions by more than 2 to 1. That response was virtually unchanged from a Times poll taken in May, 1983.

Smaller Margins

Those surveyed supported specific legislation to curb imports by much smaller margins, however, and narrowly opposed a bill that would impose a 25% surcharge on a wide variety of imports, including television sets.

“People don’t readily make the connection that prices are going to go up with quotas,” said William Schneider, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and The Times’ political analyst. “You get a very positive response to enacting quotas, but you get a more negative response when you relate the quota to specific price increases.”

The survey showed that a political candidate who favors trade barriers will not be hurt by that position. When asked whether they would be more or less likely to support a candidate who favors trade barriers, 43% said they would be more likely, compared to 38% who said they would be less inclined.

Farm, Business Support

Congressional efforts to curb imports began when senators and representatives returned to Washington after spending the August recess in their districts. Congressmen said they heard strong sentiment in favor of protectionism, not only from workers but also from business leaders and farmers, who in the past had strongly opposed interference in the free market.

The Times survey found that the more educated the respondent, the less likely he or she was to support import restrictions. Nevertheless, substantial opposition to restrictions was found only among those who said they had a postgraduate education. Within that group, 47% opposed trade barriers to protect jobs and 45% favored them.

The poll found also that people who own Japanese cars tend to support restrictions less than those own American cars. Of the entire sample surveyed, 67% said they own American cars while 19% own foreign cars.

Americans are more likely to blame the trade gap on the actions of foreign countries than on domestic policies or problems within American industry. Following cheap foreign labor, the most often cited explanation for the imbalance was a tendency of foreign governments to sell goods more cheaply abroad than at home, a practice known as “dumping.”

Obsolete Plants Cited

Respondents attached less importance to other explanations, such as failure of U.S. corporations to commit themselves to foreign markets, the high value of the dollar or outmoded domestic business practices and inferior American products. However, substantial numbers believe that American manufacturing plants have grown so obsolete that they are unable to compete with foreign production.

The most popular argument in favor of restrictions was job protection, followed by improving domestic profits and improving the trade balance. The most often cited argument against restrictions was a desire to improve domestic manufacturing and thereby cut prices of American goods, followed by concern that restrictions would raise prices and create world tensions.

Fifty-eight percent of those surveyed opposed Reagan’s recent decision to permit the voluntary quota on Japanese-made automobiles to lapse. Fifty-five percent said they favor legislation calling on the United States to retaliate against Japan if the Japanese fail to open their markets to American-made communications equipment.

Opposition to Bill

Despite such sentiments, the survey found opposition to a bill that would place a 25% surcharge on imported cars, television sets and all other products from counties like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Brazil. The surcharge would be slapped on those countries if they failed to reduce their trade surpluses with the United States. Forty-nine percent of those asked about the bill said they oppose it, compared to 43% in favor.

‘More Unified View’

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) said in an interview that the poll reflected what he and other members have been hearing in their districts.

“Now, there is a more unified view of the fact that we’re losing the trade competition, and people want something done about it,” Gephardt said. “They’re not sure why it’s happening, but they want something done.”

Gephardt dismissed opposition to the 25% surcharge plan, which he is co-sponsoring. He said he believes the legislation, if better understood, would have received stronger support.

Roger Bolton, a spokesman for U.S. Trade Representative Clayton K. Yeutter, said he did not find the poll results completely discouraging.

‘Mixed Results’

“It seems to me you’ve got mixed results there,” Bolton said. “When you ask about specific legislation, you get a little less support than when you ask about trade restriction in the abstract. It seems to me that it shows that people do understand some of the arguments against protectionism.”

But Bolton said the results may also show that the Administration has failed to get across its message on trade. Americans traditionally have supported trade barriers to save jobs, he said. The Administration believes that barriers will lead to retaliation abroad. That, in turn, will cost Americans jobs in domestic industries that export their products, he said.

“The President has just really begun to speak out on this issue,” Bolton said. “I would suspect that people will begin to change as they hear more from him on this subject.”