In the month since the New Hampshire presidential primary, the debate in the Republican and Democratic races has shifted to free-trade deals and whether they have left American workers behind.
And as the campaign moves to the key Ohio primary Tuesday, the issue that fueled wins in Michigan this week for Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Bernie Sanders is likely to be a key factor again.
Like Michigan, Ohio has seen its fair share of job losses that some attribute to free-trade policies that have encouraged outsourcing and increased imports. In 2015, Ohio lost 115,000 jobs due to free-trade deals, according to a study released this month by the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank focused on conditions of low- and middle-income workers. The study found that Michigan ranked first for the most job loss due to free trade last year, while Ohio ranked sixth.
Exit polls in Michigan showed that nearly 60 percent of Democratic voters there believed that free trade contributed to job losses. More than half of Republican voters agreed. And those who felt that way were also most likely to vote for Sanders and or Trump.
Trump, the Republican front-runner, described himself at a Tuesday night press conference as a “free-trader” — but also a “smart trader.”
“China has taken millions of jobs, thousands of factories — what they have done to us, it’s the greatest theft in the history of the world,” he said.
Sanders held a press conference in Michigan on the issue and aired an ad on the subject.
“All that I am here to say today, along with everybody else here, is our trade policies for the last many decades have been an unmitigated disaster,” he said at the press conference.
And the discussion between Sanders and Hillary Clinton over trade deals during Sunday night’s Democratic debate in Flint, Mich., was seen as a pivotal moment that ultimately helped Sanders win the primary on Tuesday. As a result, it was no surprise that he brought up the topic again in Wednesday night’s debate in Miami.
In Ohio, trade will likely be a major issue in both the Republican and Democratic primaries.
“Ohio still views itself as an old world manufacturing outlet. Trade issues resonate here more than elsewhere. We still make stuff here,” said David Niven, a political science professor at the University of Cincinnati. “This is another state that is fertile ground for Donald Trump, and that could be a problem for Clinton. You have people here who feel left out and that they have been sold out on trade.”
Former president Bill Clinton pushed hard for several free-trade deals in the 1990s, including the North American Free Trade Agreement, the General Agreement on Tariff and Trade, and most-favored nation trading status with China. As secretary of state, Hillary Clinton said she hoped the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade proposal, backed by the Obama administration, would become the “gold standard” for all other trade deals. As Sanders rose to become a significant challenger, in the past year, however, she announced she was against the TPP deal because she wasn’t happy with the details.
The debate takes place as the economy remains the top issue for Ohioans. A CNN/ORC poll released Wednesday showed 42 percent of voters in both parties considered the economy the top issue in the campaign. In the Ohio Democratic Senate primary, too, trade has become a key issue.
That said, Ohio voters have not punished Clinton or Ohio Governor John Kasich, now a Republican candidate for president, too badly over support for free-trade policies in the past. Clinton won the Democratic primary here in 2008 over Barack Obama, focusing on white working-class voters. Kasich, who has said that anti-union legislation like Right-To-Work is not a priority of his, has won two statewide elections and holds one of the highest approval ratings of any governor in the country.
Still, Republican operatives on the ground in Ohio say there is tension between the grass roots and the establishment within the party, even as evidenced in hotly contested races for the state Republican Party’s central committee, where Tea Party organizers have organized several challengers.
“Republican voters in Ohio see Kasich as the embodiment of the establishment,” said Ohio Republican consultant Mark Weaver. “Even though Donald Trump has no ideological core, he says things on trade that make people believe he has a plan and he will stick up for the little guy. That has proven to be powerful.”