US-Chinese relations have become increasingly tense in recent weeks as President Donald Trump stripped Hong Kong of its special status in light of China’s new security law. The United States public increasingly view China as a threat amid the country’s controversial handling of the coronavirus pandemic as well as China’s increasingly aggressive actions in Asia, including recent skirmishes on its border with India. Attitudes towards China will ultimately be an important issue going to the U.S. Presidential Election this November.
To understand the important that relations with China will play in the election, we at Redfield & Wilton Strategies polled the public in six swing states which will be crucial to the 2020 Presidential Election: Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The positions of the candidates on China will clearly constitute an important factor in the Presidential Election. About half or more (49-60%) of respondents say that the candidates’ stances towards China will be at least moderately important to them in deciding how to vote.
In contrast, a minority (18-20%) think it is not an important factor at all. These voters may believe that both candidates have similar stances on China or target other issues as more important to their own daily lives.
Overall, a significant majority (59-71%) of respondents in all six states see China as more of a threat than an ally, with only 5-8% disagreeing.
Perhaps as a result of the Americans public hostility towards China, a plurality (32-37%) of respondents favors more distant relations with China. A further 18-22% are happy with the USA’s current level of relations with China, which many in Beijing already consider at a historic low.
The majority of swing state voters thus support keeping China at arm’s length, whether by continuing the current policies of the Trump administration or going even further. During the Trump Administration, the US has imposed tariffs on more than $360Bn of Chinese goods, with the intention of encouraging consumers to buy more American produced goods. Although the majority of the US public support a continuance, or escalation, of this relatively hostile policy, around a fifth (18-20%) of Americans favors closer relations to China.
Breaking the figures down, we find that this view falls along partisan lines. Likely Trump voters are confident in either continuing the same relationship with China (23-26%) or having more distant relations (44-54%). By contrast, likely Biden voters are much more divided on the issue, with about a third of this group (27-35%) supporting closer relations with China and a minority (15-22%) preferring more distant relations. Those who support Biden may prefer a more diplomatic approach to China, involving closer relations. Biden himself has a long-standing relationship with the Chinese President, Xi Jinping.
The origin of the coronavirus pandemic may be a primary reason why voters distrust China and support distant relations between the country and the US. Roughly half or more (47-59%) of respondents believe that China is responsible for the pandemic, while just 14-22% do not. Many scientists believe that China did not do enough to regulate so called ‘wet markets’ which may have initiated the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Indeed, this anger may go further due to the belief that China did not handle the coronavirus properly when it was first discovered. A recent report by the Department of Homeland Security intelligence service found that China concealed the severity of COVID-19 from the International community in early January. A strong majority (60-70%) of respondents believe that China initially covered up or hid the seriousness of the outbreak, making other countries unable to properly prepare for the pandemic. A minority (13-22%) say that China was transparent with its efforts to handle the coronavirus.
While having a solid policy towards Beijing is important to voters, Trump has been quite successful at convincing swing-state voters that he will be ‘tough on China.’ Between the two main candidates, nearly half (43-50%) of voters believe that President Trump, will be tough on China, while less a third (26-33%) think Joe Biden is the better candidate to be described in this way. Notably, roughly a quarter (18-28%) did not know.
As the incumbent, President Trump has the advantage of pointing to his current term as evidence of his policy towards China. Nevertheless, swing voters are strongly divided on Trump’s approach to China over the coronavirus crisis. Roughly a third of respondents agree that Trump’s approach has been “about right” (28-36%), yet a similar proportion (26-32%) consider that Trump’s policy is “not aggressive enough” (26-32%). Moreover, a notable minority (16-20%) say that Trump has been “too aggressive” towards China.
A majority (55-63%) of likely Trump voters agree that Trump’s aggression has been “about right” and most of the remainder (23-32%) support even stronger tactics, which Trump is likely to pursue as China’s continues its own aggressive actions. Meanwhile, about a third of Biden supporters believe that the Trump administration’s current policies are too aggressive (27-36%), while a similar proportion consider the policies about right (27-34%). It is likely that these voters prefer Joe Biden because of his stance on other issues, contrasting Trump voters, who seem unified around China policy.
Trump’s current attitudes towards China likely impact how voters see his policies in the future. A majority (49-55%) of respondents agree that he will likely be tough on China, but almost as many, 32-40% disagree.
Trump’s stance towards China is clearly well perceived amongst his voter base, with an overwhelming majority 89-90% of likely Trump voters agreeing that he will be tough on China. By contrast, a majority (57-70%) of likely Biden voters do not think that Trump will be tough on China, with only 21-27% disagreeing. Despite Trump’s hard rhetoric against China, he has also praised China’s leader Xi Jinping in January, and likely Biden voters may doubt Trump’s consistency in his China policy.
Meanwhile, swing voters are split on whether Joe Biden is likely to be tough on China. A slight plurality (40-46%) believe that he will not be, but roughly a third (25-36%) think he will be. A further third (24-33%) do not know.
Although likely Trump voters are confident that Biden will not be tough on China, with 77-85% saying so, Biden’s own supporters are more divided. At least half (49-62%) of his likely voters say he will be tough on China, yet about a third (26-35%) of his own likely voters do not know if Biden will be tough on China. This finding is consistent with our previous poll.
While an aggressive policy towards China is relatively popular across the political spectrum, Biden supporters are somewhat divided on the best approach. Trump’s voters have coalesced over his toughness on China and the economy, indicating that his aggression towards China is a successful strategy in energizing his base. Likely Biden voters, however, are split on how close US-China relations should be, as well as Biden’s own stance on China. This may well be a strength for Joe Biden. Indeed, may be the case that Biden’s amorphous stance on China is due to his desire to rally support around other key domestic issues – for example research conducted in July indicates that Biden has convinced voters that he cares about the American public and can unify the country.