The coronavirus may be dominating headlines, but as November draws nearer, the U.S. presidential election is about to loom large in the minds of American voters.
As the moment to cast ballots is also creeping closer, data shows distrust for China, the most prominent competing global superpower, is growing among Americans on both sides of the aisle.
According to Pew Research Center data released last week, Americans’ unfavorable feelings toward the country reached all-time highs this year. What’s more, 66 percent harbor negative opinions of China—the highest percentage recorded since Pew began polling on the issue in 2005.
Only 26 percent of U.S. respondents reported a favorable attitude toward the so-called world’s factory.
“We see record unfavorable attitudes among Americans—Republicans and Democrats—at this point,” Laura Silver, a senior researcher at Pew, told Sourcing Journal.
Concerns about China’s power and influence have been growing, Silver said, and the percentage of people who perceive the country as a major threat has skyrocketed even from a year ago. China, in fact, tied with Russia as the No. 1 threat to the U.S., with Democrats more likely to distrust the former Soviet stronghold.
“When we asked about whether China was an adversary, a serious problem or not a problem for the U.S., we see partisan differences,” Silver said. “Republicans are more likely to call them an adversary, but the percentage of people who say China is not a problem has fallen precipitously in the past few years.”
That doesn’t speak to whether or not people think President Trump’s actions, like the contentious and ongoing trade war waged over the past two years, have been positive, Silver said. The uptick in negative sentiment is, however, “suggestive of the fact that China is increasingly seen as a threat.”
At 91 percent, the majority of Americans are somewhat or very concerned about China’s environmental footprint, while 87 percent describe the prospect of cyber attacks from the country as somewhat or very serious problem. Ranking as the No. 3 concern, 85 percent of Americans said the U.S.-China trade deficit presented somewhat or very serious issues, while job losses to China represented the No. 4 concern with 84 percent of Americans expressing their worry over the this topic.
While distrust has proliferated across party lines, there may be differences of opinion on what good U.S.-China policy looks like.
In a July Pew survey, 37 percent of Americans described increased tariffs between the U.S. and its trading partners as good for the country, compared with 56 percent who perceived the duties as negative.
“Like many things in the U.S., this was incredibly partisan,” Silver said, adding that 67 percent of Republicans—or right-leaning independents—were likely to say the tariffs were good, compared to just 12 percent of Democrats who said the same.
When asked whether it was more important to get tough on China or strengthen the working relationship, 62 percent said it was more important to deepen ties and trust. By contrast, getting tougher should be the top priority, 35 percent said.
“Conservative Republicans are much more likely than liberal or less conservative Republicans to say it’s important to get tough,” Silver said. That could be because the electorate is following the party line and taking its cues from the top, Silver added, but it could also be because leadership is catering its policies to perceived public sentiment.
“Either way, we’re seeing a lot of ideological congruence between the elites and conservative Republicans on that particular issue,” Silver said.
Trump will likely seek to tap into his supporters’ existing anti-China sentiments, Stuart Rothenberg, senior editor at Inside Elections, told Sourcing Journal. “China will get plenty of play since Trump uses it to play to his base,” he said, adding that the president will almost certainly position the country as a monolithic enemy.
“China certainly will be a big issue, in part because the president needs as many boogeymen as he can find,” Rothenberg said. “If you’ve watched Trump, you know any agreement that he did not negotiate—NATO, TPP, NAFTA, etc.–is junk, so I expect him to talk about trade and China frequently.”
The president, he added, has already begun characterizing his opponent, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, as the weaker choice when it comes to China. “I believe I have already seen pro-Trump spots attacking China and suggesting that Biden has been ‘soft’ on China,” he said, citing the former vice president’s multilateralist views and historically friendlier stance on trade.
“Biden has already responded with an ad accusing Trump of shipping medical supplies to China right before the virus struck in the U.S.,” Rothenberg said. “He won’t allow himself to be painted as an apologist for China,” especially not while the president uses the coming months to expound upon the country’s offenses, like intellectual property theft, unfair trade actions, and the spread of the virus.
Most voters, however, don’t vote on just a single issue. While China stands to play a larger role in this election than it has in years past, “voters will evaluate the two hopefuls on a range of items, from ability to handle the economy to their character, judgment, intellect and values,” Rothenberg said. The economy is likely to be the top issue for voters, with healthcare also playing a major supporting role, he added.
If both parties run on a China platform, which Silver said is not unthinkable, it could become a key campaign issue for Americans. “It may not necessarily be the top voting issue, but definitely something that plays,” she added.
Both parties have historically painted China as a threat during election seasons, she said, casting the country as a scapegoat for America’s economic woes. It happened in 2012, Silver said, when both former President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney both ran on “let’s get tough on China” policies.
“You could see it in their advertisements,” she said. “Generally speaking, when both parties on both sides of the ideological spectrum are saying the same thing in unison, you might see more shift among the views of the electorate.”
Both candidates Trump and Biden will likely end up jockeying for the position of toughest China, but right now, the election looks to be more of a referendum on the president’s performance, Rothenberg said.
“His supporters think he has done great and blame everyone they can for his problems,” he said, adding that Trump’s naysayers often criticize his personal qualities, like his use of divisive language and tendency to play fast and loose with facts, for many of the nation’s challenges.
And, according to Pew’s April 16 data on Trump’s coronavirus response, 65 percent of Americans believe the administration reacted too slowly to the health crisis. That discussion will likely continue to play out negatively for the president in the coming months.
With about half a year until the general election, the president is narrowly keeping pace with his challenger. Biden held a 2 percent lead nationally over Trump in Pew’s election poll from last week, garnering 47 percent of the vote to the incumbent’s 45 percent.
A USA Today and Suffolk University poll released Monday showed Biden besting Trump by 6 percentage points, a reversal from Trump’s three-point lead in the publication’s December poll.
“The national polls generally show Biden leading by between four and eight points,” Rothenberg said. “But we don’t have a national election; we have a series of state elections that produce electoral college votes.”
Though the former vice president has had a favorable showing in these recent weeks, Trump is faring better in some of the key battleground states than he is nationally. A laser focus on these targets, which include just a handful of states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida and Michigan, could represent a potential path to victory for the president.
“Democrats remain nervous, even with Biden’s early national advantage,” Rothenberg said.