Role reversal: Democrats and Republicans express surprising views on trade, foreign policy, and immigration

Voting booths are seen at a polling site during the New York State Democratic primary in New York City, U.S., September 13, 2018. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid - RC1303206050
Editor's note:

The charts in this post are drawn from The 2018 Primaries Project: Primary voters on the issues.

2018 Midterm ElectionsIn this final stretch leading up to the midterm elections you may find yourselves confused about where the two parties stand on some issues, and for good reason. Data from The Primaries Project here at Brookings indicates that there are three key issue areas—trade, immigration and foreign policy—where the views of voters making up each party’s base challenge conventional wisdom.[1]

Are the parties swapping places on trade?

The first is trade policy. For many years, the Democratic Party was the party most suspicious of trade agreements and most fearful that they would take away American jobs. The labor movement worked hard against a series of trade agreements in the 1990s, including NAFTA and China’s Most Favored Nation. [2] And only two years ago, at the 2016 Democratic National Convention, dissident delegates protested the Trans-Pacific Partnership. But, as the following table shows, while primary voters in both parties say trade creates more U.S. jobs, this view is more popular among Democrats than Republicans by 10 percentage points. And the view that trade takes away jobs is more popular among Republicans than Democrats by 14 percentage points!

This finding is all the more remarkable given that the voters polled in these exit polls are older, well-educated and very strong partisans. There are two possible explanations. The 37 percent of Republican voters who say that trade takes away U.S. jobs are probably following President Trump’s protectionist rhetoric and policy. On the Democratic side the 64 percent of primary voters who say that trade creates more U.S. jobs may reflect opposition to Trump and also may reflect the weakness of the labor union movement. Union membership today is about evenly split between the public sector and the private sector, and public sector jobs are not threatened by trade agreements in the way that private sector jobs were previously and still are today. In any event, this data indicates that there may be a sea change coming in the Democratic Party’s attitudes towards trade.

Republican primary voters are drawing back from global leadership by the U.S.

The second interesting issue area is foreign policy. The Republican Party has long been an ardent supporter of American internationalism. That remains the case, with 62 percent of Republican primary voters saying that America should take into account the interests of its allies. The 7,198 Democratic primary voters in our survey are even more internationalist, with 89 percent taking that position. But then, reflecting Trump’s leadership on this issue, 39 percent of Republican primary voters say that the United States should follow its own national interests. This is a big development in a party that has long been in favor of America’s global leadership role.

Republican candidates were immigration hard-liners, but their voters were moderates

The third issue area is immigration, where President Trump’s incendiary rhetoric would seem to indicate that the Republican Party has become a party of hardliners on the topic. But our exit polls of 5,335 Republican primary voters (most of whom were staunch partisans) show that on this issue the party is more divided than Trump’s rhetoric would have one believe. While 44 percent of the Republicans polled would like to see illegal immigrants working in the United States deported, 57 percent prefer that they were offered a chance to apply for legal status. The more moderate position of many Republican primary voters stands in stark contrast to the Republican primary candidates we studied. Of those who weighed in on immigration policy, 79 percent oppose pathways to citizenship.

The positions of these primary voters offer important clues to the future of each political party. These voters are the core constituency of members of Congress. Just recently President Trump declared himself a nationalist, a change in ideology touching on these three issues that much of the Republican Party has yet to catch up with. The primary electorate’s changing attitudes will be important guideposts in the policy battle to come.

[1] Data is from our sample of 13,372 primary voters conducted in 20 congressional districts using exit polling.

[2] Most Favored Nation is a level of treatment accorded by one country to another in international trade. Granting this status to China was a major fight during the Clinton Administration.