After months of disparaging the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) as a “disaster” for American workers while making Mexico the primary focus of his criticisms, U.S. President Donald Trump has recently trained his sights on Canada. Specific grievances have included Canada’s supply management system for dairy (though not part of NAFTA) and the long-running softwood lumber dispute. Throughout, Trump has reiterated his commitment to renegotiating NAFTA to better suit American interests, and failing that, walking away from the pact.
In light of these new political developments, it is worth asking: what does the Canadian public think about restructuring the fundamental basis of the Canada–US trading relationship? What support exists among the Canadian public for revisiting NAFTA? And how does explicitly referencing Trump’s stated policy goal of renegotiating NAFTA shape Canadians’ attitudes?
To tackle these questions, I collected original survey data with an embedded experiment. After providing a brief description of NAFTA, the baseline (or control condition) survey question simply asked: “Do you favour or oppose renegotiating NAFTA?” The treatment condition explicitly framed renegotiating NAFTA as Trump’s stated policy goal, inserting additional language that “U.S. President Donald Trump has expressed his intention to renegotiate parts of NAFTA.” Respondents were randomly assigned to either the treatment (“Trump frame”) or control conditions. Given random assignment, any observed differences in levels of support are attributable to the Trump framing effect.
The results make clear that without any explicit reference to Trump, a majority of Canadians – 3 in 5, or 60.0 percent – favour renegotiating NAFTA. This drops to 37.4 percent – or less than 2 in 5 – in the treatment (“Trump frame”) condition, where 62.6 percent of Canadians are opposed. The difference between the two conditions is highly statistically significant – and so we can conclude is not due to mere chance.
These results suggest that a substantial proportion of the Canadian public has crystallized opinions about Trump and his administration, and further, they are highly negative. The mere mention of Trump in conjunction with a particular policy issue has the potential to reduce public support by merely framing it as one that Trump intends to pursue (or at least desires). The results are also interesting because they indicate that the polarized views of Trump frequently reported in the American context are not an exclusively American phenomenon. Trump and his persona may serve to poison public opinion abroad – potentially against American interests.