Raising the wage won't flip the Senate
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Will minimum wage have maximum impact on this year's election results? Labor groups like the National Employment Law Project (NELP) Action Fund hope so, and they've released new data from Public Policy Polling (PPP) to suggest that voters in seven battleground states are less likely to cast their vote for a candidate who opposes a substantial increase in the starter wage.

Before campaign staff decide to rewrite their candidate's policy platform, a brief history lesson is in order. 

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In 2014 as in 2016, control of the Senate was up for grabs, and there were also fiercely contested gubernatorial races in blue and purple states. PPP, the left-leaning polling shop based in Raleigh, N.C., released a memo a few weeks before election day that claimed opposition to minimum wage hikes could be a "decisive issue" in six key states: Illinois, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Iowa, Kentucky, and Louisiana. Skepticism by the Republican candidate of raising the minimum wage was supposed to reduce their support among voters by as much as 30 points.

In retrospect, this prediction looks a bit silly: Each of the six candidates who were skeptical of or opposed to a higher minimum wage still won their race, in some cases by a large margin. Even beyond this group of six, the "minimum wage as wedge issue" strategy flopped in state after state. From Colorado to West Virginia to Florida, opposition to raising the minimum wage was not a kiss of death for candidates.

Based on this track record, will PPP fare any better in 2016? Don't bet on it. The first problem with the firm's predictions lies in the wording of the poll questions they're based upon. Voters in the seven states were asked whether they'd be more or less likely to support a candidate based on their stance on raising the minimum wage. Crucially, voters were not given an option to indicate that a candidate's stance on minimum wage doesn't make much difference to them one way or the other.

This matters. In the last election cycle, a Quinnipiac poll in the battleground state of Iowa found that raising the minimum wage the most important issue for just one percent of the state's voters. Topics like "jobs" and "the economy" were far more likely to receive double-digit support as voters' most important issue. 

Last month, my organization used Google's consumer survey tool to poll 500 people who plan to vote in each of the seven battlegrounds states targeted by PPP and the NELP Action Fund. In North Carolina, for instance, over 40 percent of respondents said they were no more or less likely to vote for a candidate based on their opposition to minimum wage. Those who were swayed based on a candidate's minimum wage stance were of roughly equal proportion--essentially cancelling each other out. 

Across all seven battleground states, seven in ten who planned to vote indicated that a candidate's minimum wage opposition would have no impact on their vote, or increase their likelihood to vote for a candidate. 

The other problem with PPP's analysis is that their poll questions emphasize the purported benefits of a higher minimum wage, while leaving out the costs. It's an unacceptable omission: According to a University of New Hampshire survey, 76 percent of labor economists believe that a dramatic increase in the starter wage will have a negative effect on the number of jobs available. 

In our Google survey, we asked respondents if they'd support a $12 minimum wage knowing that it would cause some small businesses to close, and others to reduce staffing levels. Across all seven battleground states, just one in four said they'd still support the policy, with the vast majority of respondents either opposed or undecided.  

Voters' awareness of the drawbacks of a higher minimum wage may be heightened by what's happening in the states that have experimented with these policies. New York is in the midst of a series of dramatic wage hikes, with the starter wage rising as high as $15 by 2018 for businesses in New York City. Already, small businesses have cut staff or closed their doors; most recently, a neighborhood establishment in Brooklyn called the Del Rio Diner closed after 40 years in business. The owner explained that his blue collar customers couldn't afford the higher prices necessary to offset the cost of $15. 

Labor groups will no doubt continue to promote their flawed polls--just as they promote the faulty notion that you can raise the starter wage without reducing job opportunities. But voters are savvy enough to know that if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.

Saltsman is research director at the Employment Policies Institute, which receives support from businesses, foundations, and individuals. 


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.