Last December, Democratic politicians, organizers, labor groups and strategists began diagramming their plan for the midterms. Income inequality was going to be the theme, and a push to raise the minimum wage was going to be how they showed they were serious about addressing the issue. And given the data in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, it looks like the Democratic Party's plan is working well so far.
President Barack Obama mentioned raising the minimum wage to $10.10 in his 2014 State of the Union address and touted his plan at a Costco near Washington, D.C., the following day. State party officials and activists are trying to get minimum wage ballot measures in places like Alaska, Arkansas and South Dakota — states that by no coincidence happen to have big Senate races this year too.
Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) told the New York Times at the end of the year, “The more Republicans obsess on repealing the Affordable Care Act and the more we focus on rebuilding the middle class with a minimum-wage increase, the more voters will support our candidates."
It's too soon to know whether Democrats will be successful with any of their policy goals (a federal minimum wage hike seems a pipe dream for the near future given where power lies in the House), or if voters will reward them for trying in November. But the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll does show that raising the minimum wage is something many voters are planning on thinking about this election season.
From Feb. 27 to Mar. 2, 2014, pollsters asked a random sample of 1,002 adults about what issues would make them most inclined and least inclined to support a congressional candidate this year. Across the board, increasing the minimum wage drew the most positive response, with 50 percent of Americans saying they are more likely to vote for a candidate that supported this issue. Nineteen percent of those surveyed would be less likely to vote for a supporter of a higher minimum wage.
The chief election issue for Republicans — running against Obamacare — did not elicit nearly as lopsided a response. Thirty-four percent would be more likely to vote for a candidate who supports the federal health care law, while 36 percent would be less likely.
If you drill down by party though, the real effect of choosing the issues each party decided to stake the election on become more clear. Democrats are 72 percent more likely to vote for a candidate who supports increasing the minimum wage. Republicans are 70 percent less likely to vote for a candidate who supports the federal health care law. Championing these issues is less about picking off independents and more about pleasing the base and getting them fired up about politics in a non-presidential year election, which is never an easy task.
Democrats have been hurting for some non-social issue good news to throw the base for the past few years, what with the stasis over the Keystone XL pipeline, the evaporation of benefits for the longterm unemployed, the erosion of collective bargaining rights and the slowly shrinking food stamp program. Minimum wage might just be the trick, one that pushes turnout and provides tangible economic returns on an individual basis to voters.
And running against the Affordable Care Act might do the same thing for Republicans. However, running against something instead of promising new policies can be dangerous — after the election is over and the rage dissipates, voters may be found wanting more. And while independents may be swayed by a policy appeal to the base they lean toward, they are likely going to be less enthralled by an appeal that simply says, "At least we're not them," with no value added. On health care, Republicans still trail Democrats in trust to handle the overall issue even after years trying to repeal the law.
Among independents, 35 percent are less likely to vote for a candidate who supports the Affordable Care Act, with 32 percent saying it wouldn't affect their vote at all either way. Independents are 50 percent more likely to vote for a candidate who supports a minimum wage hike.
The minimum wage appears to have more cache beyond the Democrats’ base. A Gallup poll from November shows that the groups trying to get minimum wage hikes on ballots across the country might find success, too — 76 percent of Americans said they'd vote for an increased minimum wage. With around eight months left to go, the Republicans' plan to buy up ad time blasting Obamacare supporters looks far more fragile than the Democrats' push. But remember, the key here is "around eight months left to go." Many variables could change with candidates, with the economy, and with public opinion between now and November. And some Republicans have already seen the value in focusing on ways to help poor and working-class Americans as evidenced by the House GOP budget plan that Rep. Paul Ryan is spearheading, which throws a conservative lens on an issue that Democrats have tried to claim as theirs. What Democrats call income inequality, Ryan calls economic opportunity.
Regardless of how successful either party's pitch on increasing economic mobility is, it's clear that this issue is worth focusing on in 2014. If Republicans are smart, it'll start creeping into their conversations more and more in the upcoming weeks. And if they can't stop super PACs and 501(c)4s from talking about Obamacare, it may hurt after primary season ends.
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