Majority of US Voters Oppose Tariffs on Solar Panels

A new survey finds that nearly six in ten voters oppose the new tariffs on solar panels imposed by the Trump administration, including a majority in very red districts.  However, nearly six in ten Republicans favor the tariffs.

On January 22, the Trump administration imposed a tariff on solar panels in response to requests from two solar panel producers with operations in the United States.  The two companies, named Suniva and Solar World, said that solar panels were being imported from other countries, especially from Asia, in such high volumes that these companies could not compete.  The tariffs are 30% in year one, declining to 25% in year two, 20% in year three and 15% in year four.  A new bill in Congress, with bipartisan sponsorship, has just been dropped to reverse these new tariffs.

The survey of 1,999 registered voters was conducted by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland (PPC), and released today by the nonpartisan organization, Voice of the People (VOP). Neither VOP nor PPC take a position on the issues, but seek to the give the public a greater voice.

Respondents were given a short briefing including why the tariffs were imposed and the opposition from solar installers and environmental groups.  They were then asked to evaluate arguments for and against the proposal before making their final recommendation. The survey content was reviewed by experts in favor and against the solar tariffs, to ensure that the briefing was accurate and balanced, and that the strongest arguments were presented.

Steven Kull, director of PPC commented, “While Americans do respond to the arguments that American jobs are being lost to low price imports and that the US should push for better trade deals, the counter arguments–that tariffs could hurt the solar industry overall, and that there is a risk of starting a trade war—do better. While protectionist arguments hold some sway, in the end the majority comes down against the new tariffs.”

The first argument in favor of the tariffs stressed the economic benefits.

A tariff on solar energy panels will help protect some manufacturers of solar cells and panels, operating in the U.S., whose products are being undercut by a surge of lower-priced imports.  Some of these companies have gone bankrupt, costing American jobs, and more could follow.  The tariffs will give these companies a few years of breathing room they need to flourish. According to the government, this relief from the tariffs could generate thousands of new jobs in the solar manufacturing industry.

This argument was found convincing by 65%, including 58% of Democrats as well as 73% of Republicans.

The counter argument said:

These tariffs will ultimately hurt the solar industry and American workers as well.  The tariffs will raise prices on solar products, making solar energy more expensive.  Tariffs don’t help build manufacturing infrastructure in the US – smart energy policy does.  According to industry experts, though tariffs may benefit a few solar manufacturers, for the industry overall, they will result in about 20,000 fewer high-paying jobs.  Solar was finally getting cheap enough to compete with coal, providing a low-cost alternative electricity source and leading to cleaner and healthier air.

A slightly larger number found it convincing—71%, especially among Democrats (84%).  However, a smaller majority of Republicans (57%) found it convincing.

The next argument in favor of the tariffs emphasized the potential for better terms in trade deals saying:

Many of the trade deals that are negotiated between the United States and other countries are a bad deal, and America’s inability to compete in the manufacture of solar energy panels is yet another reflection of those bad deals. The United States has too often let countries like China push us around. The United States should more strongly confront other countries on how they treat America and get better deals. Pushing back on low-priced solar energy panels is a good place to start.

A more modest 55% found this argument convincing.  While a large majority of Republicans (74%) found it convincing this was true of less than half of Democrats (39%).

The counterargument went as follows:

If we start putting up tariffs against imports, it will only hurt us in the end.  Other countries will retaliate and put tariffs on US products and we could end up in an escalating trade war.  Reducing the supply of solar panels will cost the jobs of Americans who install them. Free and fair trade has been an important part of the growth of the US economy, resulting in lower prices for American consumers.  It is fine to try to negotiate better trade deals, but randomly picking solar energy panels as a target for new tariffs does not make sense.

This did substantially better than the pro argument with 68% finding it convincing, including a slight majority of Republicans (52%), as well as an overwhelming majority of Democrats (85%).

Asked for their final recommendation, 58% said they opposed imposing “a tariff on solar energy panels of 30% in year one, declining to 25% in year two, 20% in year three and 15% in year four,” including an overwhelming 76% of Democrats and a slight majority (51%) of independents.  However, 58% of Republicans favored the tariff.

The sample was divided six ways according to Cook PVI rating for the district in which they lived.  Among those living in very red districts opposition to the tariffs was lower than for the nation as a whole, but still a majority of 54% were opposed.  In very blue districts 67% were opposed.

Among Republicans support for the tariffs is highly related to attitudes about Trump.  Among Republicans who voted for Trump, 63% favored the tariffs, while among those who did not only 27% did with 71% opposed.

Steven Kull comments, “Historically there have been minor differences between Republicans and Democrats on trade issues.  It appears that Donald Trump’s challenge to the prevailing trade order is related to growing polarization between Republicans and Democrats in the public.  Ironically, this polarization is in a direction that is the opposite of the historical polarization between Republicans and Democrats in Congress.”

For all educational levels a majority was opposed, but opposition was lowest among those with high school or less (53%), rising with higher educational levels and reaching 67% among those with higher degrees.

Opposition was higher among those age 18-34 (62%) and 35-44 (65%), dropping at higher ages, with the lowest level of opposition being 52% among those age 65 and up.

The survey was conducted online from March 9-23, 2018 with a national probability-based sample of 1,999 registered voters, provided by Nielsen Scarborough from Nielsen Scarborough’s sample of respondents, who were recruited by mail and telephone using a random sample of households. The national sample has a margin of error of +/- 2.2%.

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