Tuesday night’s primaries show that Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders have struck upon an issue that could strengthen their presidential bids as the race for the White House pivots toward the Midwest: free trade.
In Michigan, where the Vermont lawmaker scored a major upset over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, exit polls showed that the economy and jobs were the decisive issues for voters. Roughly eight in 10 Democratic voters said they were either somewhat or very worried about the economy, according to CNN.
Almost six in 10 said international trade costs jobs in the U.S., and among that group Sanders beat Clinton by roughly 20 percentage points. That trend should help him as states like Ohio, Illinois and Wisconsin, where international trade has damaged local economies, get ready to hold their primaries.
People in those states “are profoundly disgusted with our trade policies,” Sanders said Wednesday during an interview on MSNBC. Voters “want a trade policy that works for workers, not just the CEOs of large corporations.”
Pressed on the idea that trade is a two-way street, he said the U.S. should not engage in a “race to the bottom” in which American workers compete against workers in Vietnam making 50 cents an hour.
“We need to rethink entirely our trade policies,” he said.
On the campaign trail, Sanders and Clinton have sparred regularly over trade deals. Sanders has crowed that he has opposed virtually every agreement since he was a freshman in Congress and hammered Clinton for reversing her position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the proposed trade agreement with a host of Asia-Pacific countries.
The accusations have painted Clinton into a corner on the issue, especially since she supported NAFTA during her husband’s administration in the 1990s and supported TPP while serving as the nation’s top diplomat.
The populist message from Sanders will no doubt continue into next week when Ohio holds its primary. Clinton leads Sanders 52 to 43 percent among likely Buckeye State voters, according to the latest Quinnipiac University poll.
Meanwhile, exit polls show that Trump, who has boasted he would rip up all existing trade agreements, dominated his rivals when it comes to concerns about the issue and the overall economy.
In Michigan, four in 10 voters who said that international trade cost the U.S. jobs supported Trump, and he won the state with nearly 37 percent of the vote.
The same story played out in Mississippi, where eight in 10 voters said they were concerned about the state of the economy. Trump rolled up his third victory of the night with around 47 percent of the vote.
The former reality TV star has notched several of his victories with the help of blue-collar Democrats and independents who feel angry and marginalized in today’s economy.
The trend is likely to continue as CNN/ORC polls released Wednesday show Trump ahead of Marco Rubio and John Kasich in their home states of Florida and Ohio. The businessman leads Rubio 40 to 24 percent and tops Kasich by six points, 41 to 35 percent.
Together, the two states are essential for GOP rivals who hope to hold Trump below the necessary 1,237 delegates for the nomination – and to keep an ardent free trade opponent off the top of the Republican ticket.