Where Do Democratic Presidential Candidates Stand on Trade?

Gary Clyde Hufbauer (PIIE) and Euijin Jung (PIIE)

March 25, 2019 9:00 AM

Even after two years of President Donald Trump's pitched assault on trade agreements, and his imposition of wide-ranging tariffs, trade is not a top subject of public debate. According to the Pew Research Center, global trade ranks lowest among major policy priorities for Americans in 2019.

So it comes as no surprise that trade is at best a third-tier subject for nearly all the Democrats who are vying for the 2020 presidential nomination. Instead, health care, college tuition, inequality, and taxes lead their agendas. Yet the next president's stance on trade will serve as a foundation for America's relationship with other nations and its leadership of the global economy, if a post-Trump era commences in 2021. For that reason, it's useful to know where Democratic candidates stand on crucial trade issues, even though these are early days in the presidential campaign.

The table below summarizes the announced positions (if any) of 15 declared candidates and 8 undeclared candidates (including Howard Schultz, a possible Independent candidate) on the following issues: the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), China (Section 301 tariffs), Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum, and sundry other trade matters. The table draws on secondary information sources such as interviews, news articles, and social media. Based on these reports, candidates are categorized as pro-trade, anti-trade, or mixed or no position on trade.

Nine candidates generally support free trade and a rules-based system. While they haven't publicly come out for or against USMCA, in the past they supported the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). At the same time, most members of this group oppose Trump's tariffs on steel and aluminum and give only qualified support to the president's Section 301 tariffs on imports from China.

Six candidates are generally anti-trade—meaning they are generally opposed to new trade agreements and support new tariffs. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren strongly oppose free trade pacts such as TPP and USMCA, support Section 232 tariffs on steel and aluminum, and are intensely critical of China. Apart from USMCA, their positions do not differ greatly from President Trump. It is worth noting that protectionist themes contributed to Sanders's popularity during the 2016 primary campaign.

The remaining eight candidates have mixed or no positions on trade policy. Among these, Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) most closely resembles a generally pro-trade candidate. She opposed tariffs on steel and aluminum, wanted to exclude electronics from tariffs on imports from China, but also opposed TPP. Other members of this group oppose tariffs that directly hurt their state's economy but also oppose broad free trade agreements.

Summing up, Democratic contenders offer widely different perspectives on US trade policy, and thus on US engagement with the world in a post-Trump era. While not a major debating point, the clash of views on trade parallels the clash between moderate and progressive Democrats on high-profile issues like health care and taxes. In the realm of trade policy, the choice for standard-bearer among Democrats will be just as consequential as the choice between Trump and his Democratic opponent in 2020.

Positions of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates on trade

Generally pro-trade


US-Mexico-Canada Agreement

China (Section 301 tariff)

Steel and aluminum tariffs

Other positions

Steve Bullock*
Governor of Montana


US should take a hard line on China for stealing technology, but US tariffs hurt agriculture and manufacturing through Chinese retaliation.


Supports modernizing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Julian Castro
Former Housing Secretary
Former Mayor of San Antonio


Supports NAFTA.

John Delaney
Former Congressman from Maryland


Criticizes China for intellectual property (IP) theft.


Supports the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

John Hickenlooper
Former Governor of Colorado


Opposes US-China trade war.


Supports NAFTA and TPP.

Jay Inslee
Governor of Washington


"Any punitive tariffs to the Asian markets are felt deeply." 



Joseph Biden*
Former Vice President


Supports NAFTA and TPP.

Terry McAuliffe*
Former Governor of Virginia


Supports TPP; supports rule-based global trading system.

Beto O'Rourke
Former Congressman from Texas


"Trade war will devastate our state, businesses, and economy."


"I don't think we had to threaten to leave NAFTA to improve NAFTA."

Howard Schultz*
Former CEO of Starbucks


Tariffs on China won't help US jobs.


Supports TPP.

Generally anti-trade


US-Mexico-Canada Agreement

China (Section 301 tariff)

Steel and aluminum tariffs

Other positions

Cory Booker
Senator from New Jersey


Criticizes China for intellectual property theft.


Voted against on fast track for Obama administration to negotiate TPP.

Tulsi Gabbard
Congresswoman from Hawaii


"Agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of American jobs."
Opposes TPP.

Kirsten Gillibrand
Senator from New York

USMCA is "a step in the right direction" for dairy farmers in upstate New York, but also it's too early to decide whether she will support the deal.

Supports action to end unfair Chinese trade practices including subsidies in renewable energy and restrictions on rare earth exports.


Opposes TPP.;
Supports Trump for ending tribunals that resolve trade differences.

Amy Klobuchar
Senator from Minnesota


Opposes US-China tension that hurts farmers.


Opposed the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA, 2006) and FTA with Peru (2007).

Bernie Sanders
Senator from Vermont



Supports tariffs but should not target Canada and European Union.

Opposes TPP and Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS).

Elizabeth Warren
Senator from Massachusetts


Criticizes China for IP theft and forced technology transfer

Supports tariffs, but questions the exemption process.

Opposes TPP and Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS)






Mixed or no positions on trade


US-Mexico-Canada Agreement

China (Section 301 tariff)

Steel and aluminum tariffs

Other positions

Michael Bennet*
Senator from Colorado


A real strategy on China would strengthen our alliances, not provoke a trade war.


Opposes TPP.

Pete Buttigieg
Mayor of South Bend, Indiana


Argues that NAFTA resulted in significant jobs losses.

Kamala Harris
Senator from California


Opposes US tariffs on Chinese electronic goods but criticizes China's IP theft.


Opposed TPP because it did not adequately protect US workers or environment.

Seth Moulton*
Congressman from Massachusetts


Trade war with China hurts American fishing industry.


Voted against fast track for Obama administration to negotiate TPP.

Eric Swalwell*
Congressman from California


Voted against fast track for Obama administration to negotiate TPP.

Tim Ryan*
Congressman from Ohio

Opposes after GM closed a plant in his district.



Supports renegotiation of NAFTA but opposed TPP.

Marianne Williamson
Self-help author


Andrew Yang
Former tech executive


*Undeclared candidates likely to run for presidency.