Trump’s Mexican Trade War could imperil Texas Republicans in 2020

Trucks wait in a long queue for border customs control to cross into U.S. at the World Trade Bridge in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico April 2, 2019. Photo by REUTERS/Daniel Becerril

President Trump’s announced plan to pressure the Mexican government to stop the flow of migrants from Central America by imposing a blanket tariff on goods imported into the U.S. risks economic disruption, and political headaches for GOP incumbents on the ballot in 2020. This is particularly true in Texas, where incumbent Republicans already face a treacherous 2020 election in which their fates remain yoked to the President.

While media accounts have registered the protests of business and political elites, including some in Trump’s inner circle, tension between internationalist elites and Republican voters will be particularly acute in Texas. Polling finds the Republican base increasingly skeptical of the benefits of foreign trade, including with Mexico, and acutely concerned with border security. 

Mexico is Texas’ number one foreign trading partner, accounting for just under 35% of the state’s exports, according to the Dallas Federal Reserve. Despite this, Texans have consistently expressed ignorance of (or indifference to) the impact that trade has on the state’s economy. When asked in a 2018 University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll whether “the North American Free Trade Agreement, known as NAFTA, has been good or bad for the Texas economy,” only 17% of Texas Republicans had a positive response. 

There is also evidence that attitudes about trade are not strongly held, suggesting that Republican elites who side with Trump in the short run could get caught by a shift in public opinion. Broad suspicion of trade in the GOP is a fairly recent development, and as recently as the 2018 UT/TT poll, 40% of Republicans didn’t express an opinion either way about NAFTA. A majority of those who did felt that NAFTA has had a negative impact on Texas’ economy. NAFTA itself has always taken a beating in some corners of the GOP, but the results of the 2016 election illustrate that the anti-free trade turn is fairly recent. Given the shifts in attitudes over time, we should expect Texas’ GOP voters to respond to the tariffs with a mix of partisanship, the tendency to follow the cues of the party’s figurehead and, in this case, antipathy towards illegal immigration.

Should tariffs be implemented and kept in place for an extended period, public opinion is likely to shift as the economic impact become evident. Oddly enough, Trump’s initial timetable would seem likely to trigger such a potential backlash in Texas just as voters turn their attention to the 2020 election.

However one evaluates the president’s or his voters’ understanding of trade economics, Trump has good reason to believe that in the short-run, Republican voters will be willing to accept a trade war with Mexico as an effort to halt the flow of migrants and immigrants across the southern border. In all polling of any recent vintage, Texans, and Texas Republicans in particular, overwhelmingly view immigration and border security as the top issues facing the state. In February 2019 University of Texas/Texas Tribune polling, 62% of Texas Republicans cited either border security (34%) or immigration (28%) as the number one issue facing the state, and in October 2018 polling, a majority (57%) felt that the Trump administration had not gone far enough in enforcing federal immigration laws.

Whether or not the president ultimately follows through with the proposed tariffs remains an open question. Given the above attitudes, Republican voters would, in the short run, positively view Trump’s demands on Mexico. 

But the responses of the most prominent GOP leaders in Texas reflects their discomfort, as they are caught between their fear-based obeisance to Trump as the figurehead of the national GOP and the very real possibility that Texas — and those Republican voters — could suffer economically in the longer run. Gov. Greg Abbott’s statement, as quoted in multiple news outlets, illustrates the dilemma: “I’ve previously stated my opposition to tariffs due to the harm it would inflict on the Texas economy, and I remain opposed today. Nevertheless, the President is trying to address this emergency.” Others opined similarly, making sure they’re on the record that this is a bad idea while not [daring] to criticize the president who is pushing it.

For Texas Republican leaders, attempting to thread the needle while avoiding that confrontation risks appearing to agree to a policy that, despite the current configuration of public opinion, could turn a public with demonstrably shallow attitudes about trade and economics against the GOP as they head into their most challenging electoral cycle in recent memory. The delivery of mild property tax reduction and increased spending on public schools in 2019 are likely to fade into the background of an economic slowdown triggered by a Republican-led trade war with Mexico in 2020. 

Disclosure: The University of Texas has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

James Henson

Texas Tribune pollster and director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin


Joshua Blank

Research director, Texas Politics Project, University of Texas at Austin