A new The Economist/YouGov poll, showing Hillary Clinton with a five-point lead over Donald Trump, also asked: "Are you confident or uneasy about the following presidential candidates’ ability to deal wisely with international trade?"
The numbers might surprise you:
Hillary Clinton 40% 47%
Donald Trump 29% 61%
Clinton's numbers are tepid, but Trump's are a disaster.
These numbers can be interpreted in various ways. But considering that there have been several polls this year reflecting skepticism about the value on international trade generally, one should not assume that the public is rejecting Trump on pro-free trade grounds. Besides, Clinton joins Trump in opposing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, even if she has been less vocal about it, so there's no difference there to explain why he polls worse.
There are other plausible conclusions to draw:
1. Most voters grasp that Trump is a opportunistic con artist: Enough has been reported about Trump's predatory fraudulent business operations like Trump University and the Trump Network, for people to recognize that just because Trump promises "great deals" doesn't mean we will get great deals.
Furthermore, before this campaign he defended outsourcing as good for business, and he practices outsourcing for his Trump-branded merchandise, so there is no reason to believe he means what he says on trade today.
2. Most voters don't trust Trump because his other policy positions are not supportive of the middle class: For example, Trump has said that "wages [are] too high" and corporate tax rates are too high for America to be globally competitive, suggesting his idea of a global trade is one where American standards are lowered, as opposed to one where international standards are raised.
The Economic Policy Institute's Larry Mishel has also argued that Trump is "absent or wrong" on several other matters that have harmed the middle class: "Start with excessive unemployment due to Federal Reserve Board policies which were antagonistic to wage growth and friendly to the finance sector and bondholders ... Add in government austerity at the federal and state levels—which has mostly been pushed by GOP governors and legislatures—that has impeded the recovery and stunted wage growth. There’s also the decimation of collective bargaining, which is the single largest reason that middle class wages have faltered ... The most recent example is the effort to overturn the recent raising of the overtime threshold that would help more than 12 million middle-wage salaried workers obtain overtime protections."
3. Most voters worry that Trump's prescription is overly crude: Trump has proposed punitively steep tariffs on China, glibly brushing off counter-arguments: "Who the hell cares about a trade war?"
It may be that a lot of people do, even those critical of the past and pending trade deals.
While Clinton has moved toward the anti-TPP position, she also opted to criticize Trump's promise of protectionism. Last month she said: "Donald doesn’t see the complexity. He wants to start a trade war with China. And I understand a lot of Americans have concerns about our trade agreements – I do too. But a trade war is something very different ... it’s not hard to see how a Trump presidency could lead to a global economic crisis."
Trying to both criticize TPP and criticize high tariffs presents a risk for Clinton, making it seem like she is playing both sides of the issue. And Trump has tried to exploit the opening, saying "she's pretending that she's against it ... If she is elected president, she will adopt the Trans-Pacific Partnership ... She'll do this and, just as she has betrayed the American worker on trade at every single stage of her career ... we will lose jobs, we will lose employment, we will lose taxes, we will lose everything."
Clinton's tepid poll number on trade suggests some vulnerability exists, but her superior number to Trump also suggests she might be pulling it off because Trump is incapable of policy nuance, and that can be unsettling to voters.
We can't say for sure which of the above possibilities explains Trump's terrible numbers on trade. But we can say, what he has done so far isn't helping his cause.