Minimum Wage Initiatives Win At Ballot Box, But Fail To Help Democrats Politically

Increasing the minimum wage proved to be popular at the ballot box Tuesday, unsurprisingly, However, it did not help Democrats on the same ballot.

Minimum Wage

While Tuesday’s election saw Democrats suffer setbacks at the Senate, House, and Gubernatorial levels, many Democrats and pundits on the left are pointing to the fact that initiatives to raise the minimum wage passed in a number of jurisdictions, including states dominated by Republicans:

In an election in which the merest hint of association with President Obama seemed radioactive to Republican voters, one of his signature issues was embraced Tuesday in some of the country’s most solidly red states: raising the minimum wage.

Minimum wage ballot measures in Alaska, Arkansas, Nebraska and South Dakota were supposed to build on the White House’s enthusiasm for the issue, bringing liberal voters to the polls and improving the chances of vulnerable Democratic candidates.

Instead, voters ousted Democratic incumbents and supported the minimum wage increases with equal gusto.

The apparent contradiction left Democrats, who earlier this year believed the minimum wage would allow them to shape the national conversation, wondering where they had gone wrong. Was their support for the measures too tepid, or the proposed increases too modest? Or was it simply that Republican candidates had managed to neutralize an issue with strong bipartisan appeal by stepping up in support of the measures themselves?

Support for raising the minimum wage runs high. In a New York Times/CBS News poll conducted in September, 70 percent of the public supported raising it to $10.10 an hour from $7.25, as the president has proposed. Democrats and independents were strongly in favor of the proposal, while Republicans were about evenly divided, with 50 percent in favor and 48 percent against.

If the ballot measures on Tuesday were any measure, the issue has become unmoored from partisan politics. They passed by margins of 10 to 38 points. In Illinois, where the minimum wage measure was nonbinding, it passed by 33 points, but the Democratic incumbent still lost the governor’s race.

Mike Lux, a Democratic strategist who has worked on numerous ballot initiatives, said Democrats had been too hesitant to tie their prospects to the minimum wage. Speaking of Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas, a Democrat who was defeated, he said: “Candidates like Pryor, their main message in their ads and their speeches was (a) I’m not Obama, and (b) the Republican is awful. They didn’t really run a campaign on the issues they were fighting for at all. And I think that was a huge flaw.”

But local advocates in several states said Democrats had been vocal supporters of the wage increases. The issue was so popular that Republicans sought in some races to neutralize Democrats by softening their own stance.

The Republican challenger for the Senate in Alaska, Dan Sullivan, said before the primary that he would oppose the measure. In September, he reversed his position.

In Arkansas, the Republican candidates for governor and the Senate, Asa Hutchinson and Tom Cotton, waited until September to say they favored the measure.

In South Dakota, top Republican candidates who opposed the increase often avoided the topic, said Zach Crago, the executive director of the state Democratic Party. Mitch Krebs, the spokesman for the victorious Republican Senate candidate, Mike Rounds, said Mr. Rounds was against this measure but had supported previous minimum wage increases.

Ben Casselman at FiveThirtyEight has some good analysis of the date surrounding the minimum wage initiatives that were on the ballot that’s worth your attention, but I think the most salient point about what happened with this issue on Tuesday comes from Josh Barro, who suggests that Democrats may end up drawing the wrong lesson from the success of these initiatives:

Democrats have greatly misunderstood the politics of the minimum wage in a way that hurt them in the 2014 elections.

They’re right about one big thing: Minimum wage increases are popular, at least to modest levels under $10, even in red states where Republican lawmakers have blocked them. Voters in four red states voted on minimum wage increases Tuesday and they all passed, three of them by wide margins. If what Democrats want is a higher minimum wage, they can keep putting the issue on ballots and most likely keep getting their wish.

What fights over the minimum wage did not do is deliver any advantage to Democratic candidates for office. Perhaps the best example of this comes from Illinois. The state has a Democratic governor and a Democratic-held legislature. If Democrats wanted to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour from its current $8.25, they could have.

Instead, they put an advisory question on the ballot, asking voters for nonbinding guidance about whether the minimum wage should be $10. The idea was to fire up liberal voters by asking about popular Democratic positions; the ballot also included nonbinding questions about taxing millionaires to pay for education and requiring health plans to cover contraception.

All the nonbinding questions passed by wide margins. And the electorate that voted with liberals on the issue questions simultaneously rejected Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, in favor of his Republican challenger, Bruce Rauner, who has mused about cutting the state’s minimum wage. (Mr. Rauner also opposes a millionaire’s tax.)

Here’s the thing about the minimum wage: Most voters don’t live in households where anyone earns it, or are even close enough to it to get a raise when it goes up. If you ask people whether they favor a higher minimum wage, most will say yes, and even vote that way on a binding referendum. But if a politician opposes raising it, middle-class voters won’t necessarily get angry, and their votes may not be moved.

The lesson of Tuesday’s minimum wage votes is that Democrats can do more on the minimum wage, not that they can help themselves politically by talking about it more. Just because a proposal is popular does not mean it can be a keystone in your economic agenda.

Not only that, but the results of these ballot initiatives show clearly that the minimum wage isn’t an issue that can be the keystone to a winning political campaign, even in states that are solidly blue like Illinois. In each of the states where one of these questions was on the ballot Democrats at the top of the ticket ended up losing their elections despite the fact that, in most cases, they tried to make support for minimum wage increases part of their campaigns. In some cases, most notably Illinois where an increase would have easily passed into law through the legislative process but instead, for some reason, Democrats decided to put the matter on the ballot as a question that would be merely advisory rather than binding. The most obvious reason for doing something like this, of course, would be to try to help candidates, like Governor Quinn, who favor the increase, but we can see in the election results that this failed to happen, often spectacularly so. In Illinois, for example, the non-binding referendum received roughly 2,198,000 votes, while Governor Quinn received roughly 1,585,000 votes; which means as many as 700,000 people who supported the initiative voted for a Gubernatorial candidate who would likely oppose an increase if he were in office. (Source: Chicago Tribune) In Arkansas, the minimum wage increase received roughly 545,000 votes while the Democratic candidate for Governor received roughly 350,000 votes and the Democratic candidate for Senate received roughly 332,000 votes. (Source: KATV) In Nebraska, that state’s initiative got nearly 302,000 votes while the Democratic candidate for Governor received just over 162,000 votes and the Democratic ticket for Governor and Lt. Governor got just over 203,000 votes. (Source: Nebraska Secretary of State) In South Dakota, it was about 150,000 votes for the initiative versus just 82,000 for the Democrat running for Senate and 92,000 votes for the Democrat running for Governor. (Source: South Dakota Secretary Of State) Finally, current results in Alaska show the initiative getting just over 154,000 votes while Senator Mark Begich standing at 102,000 votes and even the Independent/Democratic ticket for Governor, which currently leads in the results, at just 107,000 votes. (Source: Alaska Secretary of State) Obviously, in each of these states there was no correlation at all between how people voted on the minimum wage issue and how they voted in the other races on the ballot.

What all of this suggests, obviously, is that while increasing the minimum wage may be an idea that has a strong level of support among the public, even in Republican states, it is not one that is likely to move people to vote one way or the other in  other races on the ballot. That doesn’t mean that the minimum wage increase idea is a political loser for Democrats, of course. Thanks largely to a state-by-state approach, for example, we are now at the point where most states have a higher minimum wage than the one set by Congress, and in many states that increase is now essentially automatic in that it is tied into automatic increases based on increases in the Consumer Price Index. Personally, I think that last part is a mistake from a policy point of view, but the point is that there is a smart way to handle this issue politically in way that leads to success for the issueThe mistake, as Barro notes, is to believe that pushing the issue is going to have any broader political implications, because we can see as plain as day that it does not.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Just Me says:

    IMO minimum wage is more of a local issue anyway.

    A $10 minimum wage in Alabama would bring more purchasing power than $12 minimum wage in Boston or New York. At the very least minimum wage should reflect the realities of living in low or high cost of living areas and the Federal government is t best suited to decide that.

  2. PD Shaw says:

    Illinois Democratic legislators didn’t want to pass a minimum wage increase in the face of a very weak recovery. I’m not certain, but I believe the closer the legislator was to state borders, the more concerned they were. Yes, the ballot measures were stunts to fire up a dispirited base. But the Republican Governor-elect, after much dissembling, voiced his support for increasing the minimum wage if accompanied by pro-business reforms. So, its not much of a political issue; it’s a psychological issue for a state that is worse off than many, and which watches neighboring states make painfully embarrassing pitches to poach jobs from us on claims having a better business environment. We don’t know how to act to improve the business environment, so not raising the minimum wage is easy for now.

  3. C. Clavin says:

    Yeah…but Alabama passed an Anti-Sharia law…so it’s all good.

  4. PD Shaw says:

    Chicago also approved an advisory referendum against pot in my backyard (PIMBY).

  5. stonetools says:

    I think this is an example of a Democratic agenda item that is popular across the board. It’s just not decisive for winning elections. Certaibnly it’s an argument against the “Democrats are out of step with the country” argument. Actually, its the Republican politicians (who uniformly oppose minimum wage increases, state or federal) who are out of step.

  6. JohnMcC says:

    Minimum wage proposals being put onto ballots by citizen initiative is the kind of thing that drives lots of us liberal Dems just off our rockers with frustration. It’s a long list of specific policies that the public tells pollsters that they approve while they vote for the party that would stop those policies in their tracks.

    And Dems didn’t know how to run on their own issues. The good people over at Washington Monthly (the magazine, not the website) have an article (Petrified Paychecks, Alan Binder) with a simple list of seven common-sense policies, many of them proposed and talked over for some years, that would compose a terrific set of talking points to beat conservatives over the head with in a process called campaigning.

  7. Just Another Ex-Republican says:

    What both parties seem unable to figure out is that most people aren’t particularly fond of either party, and are somewhat uninformed about what each party supports and the real world effects of those positions. They’ve been drowned in negative ads to the point where “a pox on all their houses” is the main sentiment. And since the public defaults (unfairly) to blaming the President and his party for just about everything, you get results like this: Specific referendums and laws being voted on don’t necessarily correlate particularly strongly with votes for politicians of a particular party.

    I really don’t get why this is puzzling to people–the vast majority of citizens don’t like politics or politicians, would prefer that all of them STFU, and are not particularly well informed. Not stupid, just not well informed, by choice, since the whole process of getting informed is fairly frustrating, sickening, and requires a lot of effort and being open minded enough to change your position when faced with new information–something science has shown we aren’t very good at as a species.

    People who think about this deeply, run political blogs, and comment on political boards are the weird and unusual ones 🙂 , and not very representative of the nation as a whole.

  8. Gustopher says:

    I generally take a darker view of initiatives — very often things only end up as initiatives when the legislature has failed to act. Those initiatives don’t help candidates of either party.

    Not all initiatives, but many.

    And, I think if the Democrats were going around saying that the minimum wage should be high enough that people making it aren’t qualifying for government aid, and that we shouldn’t be subsidizing businesses with cheap labor… I think that would help the Democrats immensely. But they don’t tie it into a comprehensive philosophy. In fact, many Democrats run and hide from anything that might be considered liberalism.

  9. michael reynolds says:

    Contra the conventional wisdom, state elections are de facto nationalized, and the Democratic Party needs to learn something about brand management. There should be national advertising, there should be national contrast advertising, there should be brand discipline, all of which the GOP already has in the form of Fox News.

  10. Stonetools says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Liberals hate me for saying this, but we need our own propoganda network.
    Fully agree with you about the need for brand protection and getting out a unified national message. The Democrats might get this done by the 2040 elections or thereabouts, after they have lost every state legislature-32 to go.