Slaves to the Wage


Over at Real Clear Politics, author and sometime Reasonoid Jeremy Lott tries to prove that minimum wage-hiking ballot measures yanked the Democrats to victory.

Minimum wage increases were up for vote in six states this year and carried all but one state by overwhelming margins (Coloradans approved it by a more modest margin). Residents of Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, and Ohio decided that low wage workers deserved a raise—out of somebody else's wallet, of course.

According to preliminary turnout figures compiled by George Mason University political scientist Michael P. McDonald, the initiatives did a great job of getting voters out to the polls in the midterm elections. Nationally, there were 83,217,655 ballots cast for the highest elected office in any state—a 6.2 % increase over the 2002 midterms. Nearly a third of that increase (1,450,223 ballots) was concentrated in the six minimum wage-hiking states.

The minimum wage vote had four positive effects for Democrats: (1) It gave them control of the U.S. Senate; (2) It added to their majority in the House; (3) It helped them in state gubernatorial and legislative races; and (4) It was a Democrat-friendly issue to rival gay marriage.

Me, I'm not so sure. There's never been definitive proof of people going to the polls to vote for a ballot measure in a general election. The groups agitating to pass/defeat said measures may turn out their voters, but there's not a proveable connection between voting for Amendment X and voting for Candidate Who Supports Many of the Issues Embodied by Amendment X. Look at Virginia, which hosted an anti-gay marriage ballot measure that conservatives expected to help George Allen (who supported it) beat Jim Webb (who didn't). The amendment passed by 14 points, but Allen lost, and 40,000 people who voted in the Senate race left their ballots blank on the marriage amendment. Also, Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Ohio and Nevada had more competitive races than they did in 2002. The candidates and party committees were spending more to turn voters out than they had four years ago.

But the hook of Lott's column is his advice for Democrats.

Democrats can continue to hike minimum wages on a state-by-state basis or they can hike the federal minimum wage, but probably not both. A federal raise will relieve pressure to hike state minimum wages and rob Democrats of future political gains.

What might serve Democrats best at this point is misdirection and demagoguery. They can encourage Republicans in the Senate to filibuster it or, failing that, pass a bill so ridiculous that even President Bush will have to veto it. Then tell voters the Man is keeping them down.

That sounds like the "backlash narrative" that Tom Frank was accusing Republicans (rightly) of stoking in What's the Matter With Kansas. Lott's solution is clever, but 1) the backlash narrative looks like it crapped out in 2006 and 2) the minimum wage is easier to game and re-game than gay marriage or abortion. You can have an amendment redefining marriage, one banning gay adoptions, then apart from legiaslating around the edges, you're done. But even if Congress passes a minimum wage increase, states can put slightly-higher-than-national increases on the ballot from here to the end of time.