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Mellman: Max support for minimum wage

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One need look no further than the minimum wage to find evidence that Republicans are wildly out of touch.

A year ago, every single Republican member of the House voted against increasing the minimum wage. More recently, Illinois gubernatorial candidate Bruce Rauner one-upped his primary opponents by demanding a reduction in the minimum wage. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) and Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) went even further, backing complete repeal of the minimum wage.  

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Yet, since November alone, no fewer than eight different nonpartisan public polls by six different pollsters have demonstrated overwhelming public support for increasing the minimum wage. Though the questions have differed, support has ranged from 65 percent to 76 percent. On average, Americans favored an increase in the minimum wage by a 43-point margin.

Indeed, in each of the polls for which a partisan breakdown is available, huge majorities of independents and at least pluralities, and often majorities, of rank-and-file Republicans join nearly all Democrats in supporting a minimum wage hike.

Even groups that are not congenial to the idea have been unable to find opposition. Reason, the self-styled magazine of “free minds and free markets,” which espouses libertarian views, conducted a poll in December that found 72 percent favoring a minimum wage increase, with just 26 percent opposed. In that survey, 88 percent of Democrats joined 70 percent of independents and 55 percent of Republicans in supporting a higher minimum wage.

Republicans revealed some interesting divisions, however, that could help explain the solid phalanx of “noes” among GOP politicians.  Sixty-three percent of Republicans who make less than $60,000 a year support raising the minimum wage, while only 35 percent of Republicans making more than $60,000 a year favor an increase. Similarly, 64 percent of young Republicans support raising the minimum wage, compared to 43 percent among those over the age of 55. Republican opponents of the minimum wage who hold office tend to be older and richer than the party they lead.

Desperately reaching for a libertarian life line, Reason’s headline writer on the minimum wage story added this phase: “But 57 percent would oppose if it costs jobs.” 

Let’s unpack the data a bit. 

The second clause of the headline referenced a poll question that asked, “What about if raising the minimum wage caused some employers to lay off workers or hire fewer workers? Would you favor or oppose raising the minimum wage?”

Not surprisingly, if job loss were a given, a majority would oppose increasing the minimum wage. Unfortunately for them, Reason went on to ask the next logical question — and only 39 percent thought increasing the minimum wage would cost jobs. 

Republican office-holders opposed to raising the minimum wage are not only out of touch with America, they do not even reflect the views of their own partisans, except those who are older and richer.

Democrats too can draw lessons from the popularity of the minimum wage.

First, questions about the minimum wage, and messages supporting it, are more effective when we pay no attention to that government behind the curtain. We don’t tell people “the government” should raise the minimum wage, we merely need to say it should be increased. Obviously government will perform the act, but there is no need to rub people’s noses in a government they don’t really trust.

Second, we win the battle on concrete policy, not philosophy or values. Neither the questions nor the messages take a broader more philosophical tact, discussing the role of government in the economy or even in regulating wage rates. Values and philosophy can be important, but often Americans share our policy prescriptions even if they don’t share our values or philosophical orientations. 

Republicans would do well to recognize the overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage, while Democrats can take some lessons from its popularity. 

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.