Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Minimum Wage Driving Elections

By Lucas BergerPublished November 9, 2014

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Raising the minimum wage has become a crucial debate in the Midterm elections, providing a respite from the usual smear campaigns and possibly paving the wave for future changes.
By Lucas Berger, 11/9/2014

            Election season is notorious for halting any real progress when it comes to getting legislation through Congress. Both parties talk endlessly about the issues facing our country and how their candidates will solve them if elected (or, more likely, why the opposition will fail to do so), but little is actually done to make policy. The end of campaigns is not exactly a great time to be working on passing new legislation, but there is also the fear that any progress made could be attributed to the opposition, which could lead to problems in the polls. In general campaigns have very little to do with "real" issues.. Although some debate continues on big topics such as healthcare or immigration, most of the candidates' time is spent talking about how great they have been doing in office, or in the case of a challenger, why the incumbent needs to go. Whereas a President is expected to deliver on the promises he or she made while campaigning, it is very easy for a Congressmen or Senator to return to Washington after the election and do little work on the ideas that won them the seat in the first place. This is in large part due to the general lack of media attention given to most members of Congress, as the performance of the whole is of more interest to most of the general public. All of this leads to this time of year feeling like a "he said she said" between the two parties with little hope of actual progress being made.

            With all of this in mind it is surprising to see the the debate over raising minimum wage carrying so much weight in numerous Senate and gubernatorial elections. Minimum wage is a debate waged on a large stage: President Obama has called for the national minimum wage to be raised from $7.25 to $10.10 an hour, and this proposal has been met with fierce resistance from Republicans in Congress. The fact that such an important issue is having a big effect on elections is unusual (as strange as that sounds) but there are certain characteristics minimum wage ideal for Federal elections on the state level. Almost every state has a minimum wage but they are not uniform, with roughly half begin equal to or below the federal level, which means that  President Obama achieving his goal would have a big effect on their economy. In addition people generally feel that the federal minimum wage needs to be raised, illustrated by Pew Research Center findings from earlier this year that ninety percent of Democrats and fifty-three percent of Republicans support a higher wage. In response, five states (Alaska, Arkansas,Nebraska, South Dakota, and Illinois[1]) have state minimum wage increases on their ballot, which in turn has drawn even more public attention towards the issue.

            Raising the minimum wage has historically been part of the Democrats' platform, but the public's support has forced Republican candidates to change their tune, in fear of alienating voters over their election's most important topic. Across the country, there have been examples of this happening, such as Mark Sullivan, a Republican challenger for Senate in Alaska, declaring in September that he would back Alaska's wage increase after months of suffering in the polls as a result of his past opposition. In Arkansas, Republican candidates for both Governor and the Senate have changed sides to support increasing the minimum wage. All of these candidates saw significant jumps in the polls after they swapped sides, in many cases overtaking their Democrat opponents as a result.

            It is clear that minimum wage has become a central issue of these midterm elections, but what will this mean when polls close in less than a week? It has long been assumed that Republicans are poised to retake the Senate, as Democrats looked doomed the bulk of close races, but could this "pro-Democrat" issue lead to a miracle on election day? The answer is almost certainly no. Although some Republican candidates, such as those in Iowa and North Carolina, have taken heat for standing strong on their belief that the wage should not be increased, some even arguing controversially that it should be abolished all together, their races are still very close and Republican victories would surprise few. Furthermore, those Republicans who did change their stance find themselves comfortably in the lead as a result. In the end, Republicans will still retake the Senate, and the House will certainly remain red. The real lasting impact of this debate over minimum wage is that, for once, real progress could be made because of it. The minimum wage is a topic that will not be going away. Voters, whether Democrat or Republican, want it to be raised on both the federal and state level and those entering office will have to have to make good on the promises they made during their campaigns, which means voting in favor of legislation that increases the wage. This means that while still unlikely we could actually see President Obama hit his stated target of $10.10, something that would have been inconceivable just a year ago with a Republican House and a Senate that seemed destined to follow. Obviously many other factors will decide if $10.10 does happen, but at the least it has been a refreshing to get away from the usual campaign smearing and have an election season that might produce real results.

[1]  Theirs is actually a non-binding resolution