Strategies built on smaller, more intensely supported policies have been more successful, at least to judge from the Republican Party’s recent history. And many of these issue are asymmetrically intense — someone in agreement will vote for you because of your support, but someone in disagreement will not vote against you because of that issue. My guess is trade is one of those issues, where those affected will make it a first-order priority, while the rest may vaguely believe in free trade, but won’t particularly allow it to influence their vote. And if that’s right, you may see a lot of Democrats mounting stronger-than-expected challenges in the Rust Belt.
I don’t know many Ohio factory workers, so I’m not in a particularly good position to assess Ezra’s analysis of the intensity of their opinions on trade. But I definitely don’t think it’s a good idea for Democrats to adopt a protectionist platform to lock up Ohio and Pennsylvania. Let’s begin with the assumption that the Democratic leadership is not economically illiterate, and thus is pro-free-trade on principle. It follows from said position that a Democratic administration would propose more trade agreements involving tariff reductions harmful to working class constituencies, or, even better, would propose unilateral elimination of said tariffs (please, Jesus). If a Democratic administration proposed either of those measures it would alienate the aforementioned working class constituencies. This would be doubly true if the Democratic administration had campaigned, as Ezra suggests, on an anti-trade platform to curry favor among these constituencies. In fact, it would be better to not mention trade during the campaign (as Ezra acknowledges, being pro-trade doesn’t help one with these constituents, but it doesn’t hurt one either) so as not to create an enormous backlash, as would occur if the Democrats campaigned on protectionism and then proposed tariff reductions. It doesn’t hurt, either, that this is the more honest position. Unless, of course, the Democratic party is economically illiterate, and its next president doesn’t propose any tariffs reductions. Now there’s a scary thought.