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Free Trade an Important Issue in US Elections

A delegate holds an anti-Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement sign during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 25, 2016.
A delegate holds an anti-Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement sign during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, July 25, 2016.
Free Trade Agreement Becoming Important Issue in US Presidential Election
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An international free trade agreement has become an important issue in the American presidential election.

The agreement appears to be a big issue in what political watchers consider “swing states.” These are states that move from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, or back the other way, from one election to the next.

The trade agreement is called TPP, short for the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Officials from 12 countries negotiated the treaty. Those countries control 40 percent of the world economy.

Supporters of the TPP believe it would increase trade among the 12 nations. They believe this would increase the world’s economic growth. Opponents believe it would mostly help large companies and send jobs to countries where wages are low.

Both Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, oppose the trade agreement. Senator Bernie Sanders, who sought to become the Democrat’s presidential nominee, also opposes the TPP.

Last week, Sanders’ supporters said the agreement is an example of the way government policies have ignored American workers. His supporters demonstrated against the TPP at the Democratic Party’s national convention in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Guy Anthony is a retired machinist and labor union organizer from Pennsylvania. He calls the agreement “an absolute disaster. It’s bad for working people,” he said.

Anthony was a delegate to the convention. Pennsylvania is on the eastern edge of what is often called the Rust Belt, a region where manufacturing is especially important to the economy.

The Rust Belt has lost many jobs to factories in other countries. Voters in many of the states could play an important role in deciding the presidential election in November.

For the last 20 years, most people in Rust Belt states have voted for Democratic candidates. In 2012, five of the states -- Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Iowa -- voted for President Barack Obama, a Democrat.

But this year, in part because of his strong opposition to the TPP and other trade agreements, many people in the Rust Belt are supporting Donald Trump.

Public opinion surveys show Trump has almost as much support throughout the Rust Belt as Hillary Clinton. In some states he has more. If Trump wins some or all of the states, he could become the next president.

One of the most important swing states in the Rust Belt is Ohio. Dennis Kucinich was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from the state. He is a Democrat and a former presidential candidate. He has opposed free trade agreements for many years. He told VOA that the agreements are among the reasons voters in the state support Trump. He said workers have been “sold out by both political parties.”

“Trade agreements have cost this country millions of jobs, lowered the standard of living, knocked down wages, cut benefits and reduced pensions,” he said.

Voters in the Rust Belt may also be supporting Trump because of Clinton’s support for earlier trade agreements.

Her husband, former President Bill Clinton, signed the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1993. Some experts have blamed the agreement for a loss of jobs.

Some observers believe if Hillary Clinton becomes president, she will change her opposition to the TPP. They note that when she was secretary of state, she helped write the agreement. Then, when she began running for president, she announced her opposition to it.

Susan Hall is a Sanders delegate from Pennsylvania.

“I’m pretty confident she’ll flip her position back on it if she becomes president,” Hall said.

Clinton representatives say she will not change her position. They note that the TPP does not meet her demands for protecting American workers.

But Trump believes Clinton is only temporarily opposed to the deal.

“We all know (what) is going to happen if she” wins the presidency, he told reporters last week.

But even though many politicians and reporters are talking about the TPP, surveys show that many Americans do not even know what it is.

Earlier this year, one study showed 72 percent of Americans either had not heard of the agreement or had not heard much about it.

Charley Ballard teaches economics and organizes opinion surveys at Michigan State University.

“I’ll bet if we asked a sample of people what the TPP is, a lot would say, ‘toilet paper something,’” he said.

Before the election, many Americans did not know what the TPP was. Ballard said “I think it probably still isn’t well-known,” even when it is being discussed during the campaign.

Gary Hawley of Wisconsin was a delegate to the Democratic convention. He is a retired carpenter and union member. He says many people in his state may not believe the TPP is an important issue.

“I don’t think people know enough about the TPP, and you’ve got to know about something before you can agree or disagree with it,” he said.

I’m Christopher Jones-Cruise.

VOA’s William Gallo reported this story from Philadelphia. It was adapted for Learning English by Christopher Jones-Cruise. George Grow was the editor.

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Words in This Story

swing state – n. a US state in which the Democratic and Republican candidates both have a good chance of winning (also called “battleground state”)

region – n. a part of a country, of the world, etc., that is different or separate from other parts in some way

sold out – phrasal verb to do something that does not agree with your beliefs, values, etc., especially in order to make money

standard of living – n. the amount of wealth, comfort and possessions that a person or group has

knocked down – adj. informal reduced; lowered

benefit – n. something extra (such as vacation time or health insurance) that is given by an employer to workers in addition to their regular pay

pension – n. an amount of money that a company or the government pays to a person who is old or sick and no longer works

confident – adj. certain that something will happen or that something is true

flip – v. to change; to return to a previous position, opinion or belief

sample – n. a group of people or things that are taken from a larger group and studied, tested, or questioned to get information