Canada united, America divided on NAFTA as negotiations begin

Polls show Canadians have few partisan divisions when it comes to free trade with the United States, but polarized politics south of the border could be a big complication.

Differences between Democrats and Republicans could complicate trade talks

Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland, centre, holds a roundtable consultation on NAFTA with labour stakeholders in Toronto on Tuesday. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

When talks to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement kick off Wednesday, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland will be negotiating on behalf of a country without any significant partisan split over the trade deal.

That will not be the case for her American counterparts across the table.

According to polls, an increasing majority of Canadians approve of the agreement that has been in place since 1994. Liberals, Conservatives and — for the most part — New Democrats are on the same page.

But in the U.S., Republicans and Democrats are starkly divided. And that could have unforeseen consequences on how the talks unfold.

That NAFTA is far more popular today than it was when it first came into force is clear across polls done in Canada. An Ipsos/Global News poll conducted last month found 74 per cent of Canadians said they support NAFTA, while just 11 per cent oppose it.

That it has been a net benefit to Canada was the view of 56 per cent of respondents. Just 15 per cent said it has hurt the country.

In 1998, a decade after the divisive 1988 federal election campaign that was fought over free trade with the U.S., an Angus Reid poll found the margin to be far closer: 40 per cent said it was a benefit while 27 per cent said it had hurt the country.

An EKOS/Canadian Press poll from June found 81 per cent of Canadians agree there should be free trade between Canada, Mexico and the U.S. EKOS's polling has found support to be consistently between 70 and 80 per cent since the early 2000s, while less than a majority shared that opinion in the 1990s.

Canadians are more divided on how they feel about the negotiations. Ipsos found more Canadians believe the talks will be good rather than bad for Canada. An Abacus Data survey from July suggested Canadians, by a margin of three to one, said the Liberal government was doing a good or acceptable job in handling NAFTA, rather than a poor one.

However, a Nanos/Globe and Mail poll showed 49 per cent of Canadians were at least somewhat lacking confidence that Canada would be able to protect its economic interests — up 12 points from February.

United Canada, divided States

But Canadian negotiators likely won't be distracted by dissent at home, at least not to the same extent as the Americans.

In the Ipsos poll, the Liberals were seen as being better able to defend Canadian interests in the negotiations than the Conservatives by a margin of 38 to 23 per cent.

And Conservative voters are more likely to give the Liberals the benefit of the doubt on this issue than on others. Abacus found that just 27 per cent of Canadians who voted for the Conservatives in 2015 said the Liberals were doing a poor job on NAFTA.

On jobs and the economy as a whole, however, that proportion was 21 points higher.

Chrystia Freeland outlines Canada's NAFTA goals

6 years ago
Duration 2:26
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland outlines Canada's priorities for NAFTA during a speech at the University of Ottawa on Monday, ahead of talks beginning later this week.

Polls consistently show Liberal and Conservative voters view NAFTA the same way. New Democrats, who along with the Liberals campaigned against free trade in the 1988 election, are broadly supportive of the agreement.

Pew Research polled Canadians, Americans and Mexicans earlier this year on their views of NAFTA. It found 74 per cent of Canadians said it had been good for the country, while just 17 per cent said the opposite.

That was a bigger margin between these two views than was recorded among Mexicans (60 per cent good to 33 per cent bad) and Americans (51 per cent good to 39 per cent bad). 

Pew found just a one-point gap between Liberals and Conservatives on their opinion of NAFTA, with 82 per cent of Liberals and 83 per cent of Conservatives saying it was good for Canada, along with 70 per cent of New Democrats. 

That gap stretched to 38 points between U.S. Democrats and Republicans, with 68 per cent of Democrats saying NAFTA had been good for the U.S. Just 30 per cent of Republicans said so.

Unpredictable partisanship

That the Canadians may be negotiating from a more united position than the Americans brings both advantages and potential disadvantages.

Freeland's team might be less influenced by political machinations at home over the course of the negotiations. Presumably, that strengthens her position.

But with a divided population behind them, the American negotiators may prove to be less predictable. U.S. President Donald Trump wants to deliver a result that will go over well with his Republican base — meaning the objectives of the Americans may be less about getting a good deal that can work for all three countries and more about getting a deal they can sell as a victory to their voters.

U.S. President Donald Trump campaigned on renegotiating NAFTA — or tearing it up. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Politics, not economics, could play an outsized role. The political situation in the U.S. seems to change on a daily basis. The negotiators' goals might change with it — and the longer the negotiations stretch on, the closer they get to the U.S. midterm elections in November 2018.

The good news for the Canadian negotiators is the Republican base isn't particularly motivated to stick it to Canada. In a poll conducted in January by the Angus Reid Institute, just 11 per cent of Americans said NAFTA benefited Canada more than the U.S.

That number increased to 45 per cent when the comparison was instead made with Mexico.

There was no significant difference in the poll between Trump and Hillary Clinton voters when it came to Canada and NAFTA, whereas Trump voters were far harsher on their Mexican neighbours than Clinton's supporters were.

Mexico, too, is facing an election soon. The country goes to the polls next summer.

So politics will not be very far from the negotiating table. Whether that will play to the advantage or disadvantage of Freeland and her team is not yet clear — and with Trump in the White House, that may change on a moment's notice.


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.