On Trade and TPP, Polling Doesn’t Tell You Everything

Polling can be a valuable tool to tell you where the public stands on your issue. But sometimes, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Public policy professionals know that other factors beyond polling, like support from influential stakeholders or activists, can powerfully shape the outcome of policy battles.

Case in point: The Trans-Pacific Partnership, the text of which was released to the public this week. Earlier this month, our friends at YouGov released a study measuring public support for the TPP, and exploring public perceptions of trade deals and their benefits to the U.S. economy.

The poll found vastly more Democratic support for the TPP and free trade than Republican support. 38 percent of Democrats said the TPP would be good for the U.S., versus 22 percent who said it would be bad. Amongst Republicans, just 27 percent said the TPP would be good for the U.S., versus 33 percent who took the opposite view.

Based on these numbers, you might expect the Democratic candidates to support TPP, which has been pursued aggressively by the Obama White House. Yet Hillary Clinton recently announced her opposition to the TPP — in agreement with fellow Democrats Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley. Republicans have been more equivocal in their positions on the deal, but have generally been more supportive than not of trade promotion authority and of free trade deals in general. The Obama Administration’s request for trade promotion authority was passed with Republican votes over the objection of a majority of Democrats in Congress.

This does pose an interesting question: Why are politicians taking the opposite position of what their voters seem to want? On the Democratic side, support for free trade seems to be a popular position, in line with that of the sitting Democratic President, who has the strong backing of the Democratic primary electorate.

On trade, polling alone can’t supply the answer. We decided to look at another data source — social conversation — to get a different perspective on the political dynamics on trade.

Specifically, we looked at mentions of TPP in Echelon’s Optimized Listening platform since the start of the year broken down by key political audiences on Twitter: conservative activists, liberal activists, and Beltway elites.

While this is an issue that cuts across party lines, liberal activists have been far more engaged on TPP than conservative activists over the course of the course of the last year, with the exception of a brief period around the TPA debate in June:

Daily Total Volume of Mentions Among Beltway Elites, Liberals, and Conservatives: “TPP” (February 26 — November 5, 2015)

Simply talking more about an issue doesn’t indicate whether or not a group of people supported that issue. But an analysis of individual tweets through Optimized Listening reveals that the overwhelming amount of mention volume related to TPP is opposed to the deal, and throughout most of the year, liberals were more likely to express that opposition than conservatives. From February 26 through today, liberals were more than twice as likely to talk about TPP as conservatives, comprising 71.4% of mention volume between the two audiences. This shows they are more engaged than activists on the right when it comes to trade.

What about the period on the chart where conservatives (in red), led the conversation? This came on the heels of a campaign by conservatives in June to brand the TPA as “Obamatrade.” Numerous Presidential candidates, including Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, and Ted Cruz, responded by expressing renewed skepticism of the trade deals being negotiated by the Obama Administration. And indeed, the activity surrounding this spike in conversation was successful in changing some Republican minds on free trade. Earlier YouGov polling in May showed Republicans in agreement with the idea that free trade with other countries had been good for the U.S., by a margin of 50 to 31 percent. This is compared to the narrow 42–39 split YouGov found on this same question amongst Republicans in October.

Polling shows that the positions taken by the party rank-and-file are increasingly aligned with their overall perception of President Obama. But this doesn’t predict how Presidential candidates will behave. Despite a surge in interest by Republicans, Democratic activists online remain the most intensely interested in the trade issue over time. And this, rather than polling alone, is what Hillary Clinton and her fellow Democratic candidates are responding to.

Real-time continuous analysis of the social conversation, broken down by audience, can help those hoping to shape the direction of policy get a jump on understanding these trends before going into the field with a poll. These insights, beyond overall counts of mention volume that we see everywhere, can help them respond to an emerging issue more quickly, with the right message to the right audience.

Optimized Listening is a social analytics platform from Echelon Insights that tracks conversation across more than 170 political and policy verticals — including domestic and foreign policy, current legislation, Presidential candidates, Congressional leaders, and more. Subscribers, who include public affairs, government relations, and campaign professionals, receive live dashboards and custom reports from our team of analysts showing which issues are moving online right now — and most importantly, where.