Is the minimum wage a major sleeper issue in the 2012 campaign?

House Democrats – over 100 of them – introduced a bill yesterday to raise the minimum wage, from the current $7.25 an hour up to $9.80. The minimum wage was last increased in 2009. I have no idea whether this is the beginning of a major push or not, but I suspect this one has a lot more going for it than stories of Mitt Romney’s London gaffes, both in electoral and certainly substantive importance.

The minimum wage has been so ignored recently that (at least according to one polling archive site) pollsters haven’t bothered asking about it since January 2007, when the question was about raising it from $5.15 an hour. But it’s worth noting that public opinion then was overwhelmingly in favor of the increase. CBS had 68% approving, the AP had 80%, CNN had 86%, a separate CBS/New York Times polls had 85% (and 75% of Republicans) in favor, and NBC had 76% supporting an increase. The result was a three-step increase. That brought the inflation-adjusted rate to a post-Reagan high, but still significantly lower than it had been in the 1960s and 1970s, and of course even with low inflation it’s been losing value since then.

While the value of the minimum wage is still higher than it was in 2006, I’d still be surprised if the polling was any different. This is clearly a rare issue on which the parties take sharply different positions but that public opinion is lopsidedly in favor of one side – and an even rarer issue in which (at least as far as I know) the politicians on the popular side honestly believe that it’s good policy .

So: will Barack Obama wind up making the minimum wage a major campaign issue? Will Harry Reid force Senate votes on it? It’s worth noting that Obama campaigned in 2012 on the issue, but has done so little about it in office that PolitiFact scored it last year as a “broken promise.”

On the other hand, the issue might be a tricky one for Mitt Romney, too: His original position on this in 2012 was an unorthodox one (for a Republican) of supporting indexing the minimum wage for inflation, a position he eventually gave up during the fight for the Republican nomination.

There’s no realistic chance that anything could pass Congress and be signed into law before the election, and it’s probably fair to point out that raising the issue now, especially in the Republican House, is more of a campaign gimmick than an attempt at serious legislating. On the other hand, the more prominent a promise is during the campaign, the more likely it is to be acted on by the candidates who win. So it will be very interesting to see whether this is just a one-day story out of the House minority, or if Democrats in the Senate – and in the Oval Office – climb aboard. The one thing we can guess is that if they want it, it’s an issue that always polls extremely well.