Can Minimum Wage Be Democrats’ 2014 Turnout Trick?

Supporters see it as good policy, but it’s also just good politics.

UNITED STATES - APRIL 25: Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., prepares to speak at a Senate Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee's "Rural Summit," on issues such as housing, rural development, agriculture, education and conservation in the Dirksen Senate Office building. 
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Alex Seitz Wald
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Alex Seitz-Wald
Feb. 27, 2014, 4 p.m.

Be­fore Demo­crats spent a single dol­lar or sent out one press re­lease in 2014, they star­ted at a dis­ad­vant­age — as they do in every midterm elec­tion — thanks to an­ti­cip­ated low turnout among young people and minor­it­ies who don’t have a pres­id­en­tial con­test to get ex­cited about. The party’s can­did­ates are try­ing to dull this built-in edge for the GOP with smarter tools and get-out-the-vote strategies, but in some states they may get a big­ger as­sist by rid­ing the coat­tails not of a party head­liner but an is­sue: ref­er­enda to in­crease the statewide min­im­um wage.

Ef­forts are un­der­way in at least eight states to put a min­im­um-wage hike be­fore voters in Novem­ber, ac­cord­ing to the pro­gress­ive Bal­lot Ini­ti­at­ive Strategy Cen­ter, in­clud­ing four states with com­pet­it­ive gov­ernor and Sen­ate elec­tions. In ad­di­tion to us­ing the is­sue to draw a con­trast with Re­pub­lic­ans, Demo­crats ex­pect that provid­ing people with an op­por­tun­ity to vote dir­ectly on the pop­u­lar meas­ure will help mo­bil­ize their base and pos­sibly provide the mar­gin­al boost that can make all the dif­fer­ence in a tight race.

“Min­im­um-wage bal­lot meas­ures are cer­tainly not a sil­ver bul­let but def­in­itely are help­ful in turn­ing out the vote,” said a Wash­ing­ton strategist in­volved in Sen­ate races. “And our biggest chal­lenge in this cycle is not the ACA or deal­ing with the Koch broth­ers, but turnout.” A strategist work­ing on gubernat­ori­al cam­paigns agreed: “It’ll be one part of why voters turn out; it’s not the only reas­on, but it will help.”

This isn’t a new tac­tic, but it is a suc­cess­ful one. Rais­ing the min­im­um wage is over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar, polls show, and it even gains sup­port from some lower-in­come, non-tea-party Re­pub­lic­ans. “It’s just about the most pop­u­lar eco­nom­ic policy there is,” said Paul Sonn of the Na­tion­al Em­ploy­ment Law Pro­ject. “There’s a lot of polling show­ing that it en­er­gizes low-in­come and drop-off voters.”

These bal­lot meas­ures have been cred­ited with help­ing push Demo­crats over the fin­ish line in close races in 2004 and 2006, and with help­ing the party keep con­trol of state le­gis­latures as well.

Per­haps the best ex­ample is Sen. Claire Mc­Caskill’s 2006 squeak­er over Re­pub­lic­an Jim Tal­ent in Mis­souri. She made the min­im­um wage a cent­ral is­sue of her cam­paign and helped provide the mo­mentum to put the is­sue on the bal­lot — and was re­war­ded by in­creased turnout in urb­an Demo­crat­ic areas of the state. In St. Louis County, for in­stance, Mc­Caskill bested Tal­ent by about 46,000 votes, a huge jump over 2002, the last midterm, when Demo­crat Jean Car­na­han edged Tal­ent by 15,000 votes. Afric­an-Amer­ic­an turnout was up 8 points over 2002 statewide, even as black turnout na­tion­ally in­creased only mar­gin­ally. “At the end of the day, it prob­ably helped her more than the much more bal­ly­hooed stem-cell ini­ti­at­ive,” polit­ic­al sci­ent­ist Mar­vin Overby of the Uni­versity of Mis­souri (Columbia) told the As­so­ci­ated Press a few days after the elec­tion.

That year, the min­im­um wage also ap­peared on the bal­lot in oth­er key states such as Ari­zona, Col­or­ado, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio. The ref­er­enda were a part of what one long­time Demo­crat­ic op­er­at­ive fa­mil­i­ar with the ef­fort called Sen­ate Demo­crat­ic Lead­er Harry Re­id’s “mas­ter plan” to flip the Sen­ate. The op­er­at­ive com­pared it to Re­pub­lic­an strategist Karl Rove’s use of state bal­lot meas­ures to ban gay mar­riage in 2004 as a means to boost so­cial-con­ser­vat­ive turnout.

The plan worked. The bal­lot meas­ures passed in every state (of­ten by huge mar­gins, such as Mis­souri’s 76 per­cent), Demo­crats took con­trol of Con­gress, and the next year raised the fed­er­al min­im­um wage.

This time, however, the party has no mas­ter plan. Ef­forts are mostly be­ing driv­en from the bot­tom up, with some help from na­tion­al groups, such as the AFL-CIO. “People are late com­ing to this but now see that this is a cru­cial is­sue for work­ing people,” said Mi­chael Pod­horzer, the polit­ic­al dir­ect­or of the labor fed­er­a­tion. “The work­ing-class vote is go­ing to be im­port­ant in the midterm, and this is an is­sue that really dif­fer­en­ti­ates the Demo­crats from the Re­pub­lic­ans.”

Pod­horzer cred­its a min­im­um-wage bal­lot meas­ure in New Jer­sey with help­ing to keep the Le­gis­lature blue des­pite a land­slide vic­tory for Re­pub­lic­an Gov. Chris Christie in last year’s elec­tion. Christie had ve­toed an in­crease in the min­im­um wage, and worked hard to get a Le­gis­lature that would be friend­li­er to his policies, but he was re­buffed on both counts in Novem­ber. “One of the re­mark­able things about the New Jer­sey elec­tion is that Christie won 61-39; min­im­um wage won 61-39,” Pod­horzer said.

Cer­tainly, there’s only so much be­ne­fit the bal­lot meas­ures can provide this year, with so few ref­er­enda on the dock­et. Plus, in Alaska, it prob­ably won’t help Demo­crat­ic Sen. Mark Be­gich in his tough reelec­tion bid be­cause the state is ask­ing voters to con­sider ref­er­enda on the primary, rather than gen­er­al-elec­tion, bal­lot.

Even so, strategists are ex­pect­ing mar­gin­al boosts in Michigan and Arkan­sas, which each have heated Sen­ate and gubernat­ori­al elec­tions, and in South Dakota, where a Sen­ate seat is in play. And even in states without com­pet­it­ive statewide races, like Cali­for­nia, House can­did­ates could gain.

Be­sides, the main pur­pose is to give people a raise, not to elect more Demo­crats, sup­port­ers say. “Our view is that first and fore­most this is good policy,” said Pod­horzer, “and that it just hap­pens to be good polit­ics as well.”

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