Poll: Among California voters, support for trade deals doesn’t fall clearly along party lines

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders meets with union members in Michigan this month to discuss the effects of free-trade agreements on U.S. workers.

Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders meets with union members in Michigan this month to discuss the effects of free-trade agreements on U.S. workers.

(Scott Olson / Getty Images)

California voters have grown more optimistic about the economy, but persistent concerns about the future and about the impact of international trade deals have strengthened the statewide campaigns of Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump, a new USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times poll has found.

Although they represent strikingly different political philosophies, Sanders and Trump both have seized on trade as a key cause of job losses in manufacturing and other sectors across the nation. The poll shows that voters who back them strongly agreed with those criticisms.

Moreover, Democrats and Republicans overall, in a rare burst of agreement, believe that trade deals have sent American jobs overseas and have not resulted in higher wages here — although voters from both parties believe that prices have come down because of such agreements.


But by contrast to states elsewhere, particularly in the Midwest, there is a limit to the candidates’ persuasion so far. In states that voted early in the campaign cycle, both men have vehemently criticized the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, a pending dozen-nation deal, as threatening American jobs. Their view has yet to win broad voter support here.

Only 3 in 10 Californians were aware enough of the Pacific trade deal’s outlines to have an opinion on it. When the agreement was described, however, opposition rose dramatically.

“The way the numbers move when both sides of the argument are presented suggests it’s an issue ripe for candidates who want to run on it,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC. “The same populist sentiments that have fueled Trump’s and Sanders’ campaigns nationally have turned trade into an issue that can certainly move votes in California.”

Californians cast ballots June 7, the last major day of voting in the 2016 primary race. Among those eligible to vote in the Democratic primary — which includes party members and nonpartisan voters — Sanders, the self-described democratic socialist from Vermont, trailed fellow Democrat Hillary Clinton by 8 percentage points. Among registered Republicans, the only voters eligible in the Republican primary, Trump held a 7-point lead over Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the poll found.

Economic anxiety is one of the defining issues in the primary campaign. Californians are more optimistic than they were in the recent past; they’re now split on whether the state is headed in the right direction or on the wrong track. How voters feel about that direction was a prime indicator of who they back as president.


In the Democratic race, those who feel the state is headed in the right direction backed Clinton over Sanders, 52% to 34%. Those who feel it’s on the wrong track backed Sanders over Clinton, 40% to 35%.

Among Republicans, those who felt the state is going in the right direction are split, with Trump winning 25%, Cruz getting 24% and Ohio Gov. John Kasich at 18%. Among the larger pool of Republicans who saw the economy foundering, Trump extended his lead, with 40% versus 33% for Cruz. Kasich fell to 10% among those voters.

Dividing lines also surfaced when voters were asked their opinion on government’s role in boosting incomes, their view of economic fairness and whether they saw the American dream as alive or kaput. But the typical partisan splits were often muted.

By a more than 2-1 margin, Californians felt that government should do more to narrow the gap between rich and poor. The proportion held across many demographic lines, including those of gender and education. Predictably, Democrats and supporters of the Democratic candidates — the young and those making less money — were more likely to want government to play a larger role.

For example, 78% of Democrats wanted a bigger government role, as did 72% of those under age 50. Still, 32% of Republicans and 38% of those who described themselves as non-tea party Republicans also wanted more government involvement.

There was a more distinct divide among those who have sided with a specific candidate: 78% of Clinton voters and 86% of Sanders voters wanted a bigger government role, but only about a quarter of Trump or Cruz supporters felt that way.


Californians overall, by a narrow margin, said that everyone in the state — not just those at the top — had a fair chance to make it through hard work.

Sanders’ supporters had a far different view, with 69% believing that those at the top are favored — a position that echoes the senator’s regular assertion that the economy is “rigged” for the few. The majority of Clinton voters felt everyone had a fair chance — and at least 6 in 10 of all Republican candidates’ supporters shared that opinion.

“America is the land of opportunity,” Jeffrey Kozlowski, a 31-year-old Republican from San Diego, said in a follow-up interview. “Hard work goes a long way. The people that have the work ethic and the desire are the ones who achieve.”

As Kozlowski suggested, a sheen of optimism covered Californians’ views on the future. Although only 44% felt the state was heading in the right direction, 50% said that the best years for American workers were ahead, not in the past. The latter position was more pronounced among Clinton voters, 61% of whom said workers’ best days were ahead. Just under half of Sanders’ voters felt the same way, and only 40% of Trump voters shared that view.

That relative pessimism about the economy has undergirded the appeals of both Sanders and Trump on the issue of trade. In the industrial Midwest, which has suffered grievous manufacturing losses partly because of competition from overseas, the issue has been powerful, helping Sanders to a surprise win in Michigan and boosting Trump’s standing there and elsewhere.


But in California, which is both a border state and one with significant employment linked to trade, the sentiments were more mixed than in manufacturing states. Only 31% said that trade with other countries had negatively affected their family’s finances, and by a more than 2-1 margin, Californians felt trade had resulted in lower prices.

But being personally affected did not seem to limit the worry about the effect of trade deals. Almost 3 in 5 voters said that trade had pushed jobs overseas, and nearly the same proportion disagreed with the notion that trade primarily created American jobs. They also disagreed, 58% to 28%, with the idea that trade had led to higher wages for Americans.

Again, views split along political alliances. Among Trump’s supporters, 46% said their family had been negatively affected by trade, 15 points higher than for Californians overall. Far fewer supporters of the other candidates made the same claim.

Trump’s and Sanders’ supporters were less likely to credit trade for raising wages here and more likely to blame it for forcing jobs overseas.

But Sanders’ supporters broke with Trump’s when it came to tariffs that the New York businessman has proposed for Mexico and China.

Overall, only 34% of Californians supported a tariff against Mexico and 44% backed a China tariff.


In the case of the Mexican tariff, 48% of Trump supporters backed it, but only 31% of Sanders’ supporters did so. When it came to a Chinese tariff, 57% of Trump backers favored it, but only 46% of Sanders’ supporters did. Sanders’ supporters were slightly more in favor of a Mexico tariff — and decidedly more in favor of a China tariff — than Clinton’s supporters. Trump’s supporters were emphatically more supportive of tariffs on both countries than those siding with Cruz or Kasich.

On both the tariffs and the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement, there was more unanimity between opposing political parties than is typical.

Forty-one percent of Democrats, 49% of Republicans and 44% of nonpartisan voters backed the idea of a China tariff; their support for a Mexico tariff was 10 points lower in each case.

The Pacific trade agreement was backed by 27% of Democrats, 21% of Republicans and 29% of nonpartisan voters; opposition from all three groups was in the 40s.

That was when the deal was explained, however. When initially asked their views, only 10% of Californians said they supported it and 18% opposed the deal, with the remainder either unaware of it or undecided. When the deal was explained, 25% backed it and 46% opposed it, in relatively bipartisan fashion.

“This is a much better defined issue in the upper Midwest than it is in California,” said pollster Anna Greenberg of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, the Democratic half of the team of polling firms that conducted the poll for the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences and the Los Angeles Times. American Viewpoint was the Republican half of the team.


“Trade is less meaningful in the California race. It doesn’t mean it is inevitable that it’s going to be less, but it hasn’t been discussed.”

The poll contacted 1,503 registered voters in California from March 16 to March 23. The margin of error for all voters is 2.8 percentage points in either direction; the margin of error for Republican voters is 5.5 points in either direction. Other subgroups have varying margins of error.

Follow me on Twitter: @cathleendecker.

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